CAMARINES SUR, March 25, 2006 (STAR) RENDEZVOUS By Christine S. Dayrit - Dreams are meant to come true. Imagine being one with thousands of colorful fish swimming gracefully over myriad marine plants and glorious corals; exploring turquoise lagoons that seem to be the Eden where mermaids congregate; and spellbinding caves where stalactites and stalagmites jut out in gigantic proportions. Blessed with virgin limestone forests where numerous species of enchanting flora and fauna have found both haven and home, the Caramoan Peninsula in Camarines Sur is a hidden paradise with a sublime landscape. Long, sandy beaches grace the coast, while inland, there are towering volcanoes and mystic mountain peaks that puncture a sea of clouds and dramatic volcanoes that hug the coastlines, and waterfalls that are shrouded in mist. This anvil-shaped province of traditional charm and rare beauty is progressively opening up, ready to be explored by the most adventurous of travelers.

Caramoan, land of stark, arid beauty, is located off the eastern coast of San Jose, where rugged rock formations guard picturesque islands, islets, and limestone cliffs. Here, Mother Nature displays all her splendor and tranquility in exquisite stone patterns that dot the sandy terrain, while the panoramic vistas of sky and sea create an aura of omnipotent serenity as though circumstantial evidence, living proof that there is a God, the pivotal source of such ethereal beauty.

Camarines Sur Governor Luis Raymund Villafuerte, youthful TOYM awardee for entrepreneurship, spearheads the progressive development of this exquisite province. Upon his gracious invitation, my group, led by DOT regional director Nini Ravanilla, TOYM awardee for agriculture and food technology Lyndon Tan, who hails from Bicol, and I explored this pristine paradise. The affable governor enthused that Caramoan was initially referred to as Gota de Leche by the Dutch traders due to the stalagmite drop-like milk formations abundant in the rocks of Gota Port. Its name was eventually changed to Caramoan, which originated from the carahan, an indigenous sea turtle.

Lantangan Beach on Pitogo Bay, on the other hand, will change your idea of the usual beach. Instead of fine powdery white sand, piles of smooth-edged stones line the shore as if purposely landscaped by an unseen hand. Exploring the languid lagoons where the mirage of the glorious landscape is mirrored in the calm surface is serenity in solace, even as such silence is occasionally pierced by shrill cries of swooshing bats. People here are very friendly, willing to assist and guide a visitor who wants to discover the many caves that abound in the area, or bathe in the glory of its waterfalls. Atulayan and Aguirangan islands have ivory-colored beaches where rare shells abound, while Gota Beach has numerous white sand islets surrounded by caves. Matukad Beach has postcard perfect scenery as white pukka shells and corals embellish the sparkling pink sand abundant in the island. Lahuy Island, known as treasure island, is a sandy stretch of endless white beach accessible by land from the Caramoan Centro to Bikal Wharf by a 15-minute boat ride.

Cave explorations are a common thing among visitors to Camarines Sur. Entering Omang Cave is like being in the set of The Lord of the Rings as a whole new world welcomes you as you step into this limestone cave. The intriguing stalactite formation inside Omang can be both beguiling and spooky, best suited for curiosity seekers. The Kulapnit Cave, on the other hand, aside from its rock formation, has become famous for its bats that seem to parade endlessly as soon as dusk sets in. Watching the bats spiral in mid-air provides a sense of awe and joy. Those whose spirits are into extreme sports will find satisfaction while rock climbing the many cliffs of Caramoan.

At Caramoan National Park, bird watchers will surely find solace while watching diverse local and migrant birds. The variety ranges from tropical birds (exotic pigeons and hornbills), water fowls (mallards and egrets) to birds of prey (eagles, hawks, and kites). Apart from Caramoan, you can also go birdwatching in the marshlands of Calabanga, the Ragay Gulf, and even at the provincial capitol complex of Pili.

Other places to explore in Caramoan include the long beach of Sihoton, Puting Baybay in Ilawod, Puerto Mina in Cagnipa, Tayac Lagoon in Pandanan, Bulang-bugang Underground Stream in Taisan, Sabitan Laya in Balibagan, Cutivas Island in Gogon, Bag-ing Island in Haponan, Patag-Belen Waterfalls and Grotto in Mt. Caglao, Ocata Island Lighthouse in Gocon, Borocan Stream in Tawog, and Hugsan Waterfalls in Hanopol.

In Camarines Sur, the town of Buhi is endowed with the most lavish natural offerings. It is comprised of two islands, six waterfalls, 12 lakelets, 14 rivers, 15 springs, and the famed Lake Buhi. We explored the calming beauty of Lake Buhi, famous for being the spawning ground of the world’s smallest edible fish, the sinarapan or Pandaca pygmea. Lake Buhi prides itself for being consistently voted as the cleanest lake in the archipelago. Located 300 feet above sea level, the lake is a peaceful picture surrounded on all sides by gigantic hills. From its western shore can be gleaned the remains of Iriga Volcano.

Mt. Isarog is a popular forest reserve and natural park where locals depend for potable water, building materials, medicinal plants, and irrigation to neighboring areas. The mountain is tops in the list of mountaineers. At 6,489 feet above sea level, Mt. Isarog is now the last rain forest mountain in Southern Luzon.

Bathe in the many cascading falls in Camarines Sur. In the town of Lagonoy, Bolan-Ogan Falls is an impressive natural wonder. One can relish the refreshing coolness of the water gushing from picturesque rock formations covered in lush greenery. In the town of Buhi, meanwhile, the more adventurous can rappel down 30-foot-high Itbog Falls in Sitio Sta. Cruz.

The Atulayan Island, that may be reached following the coastline of Nato town , is a haven yet to be discovered by many. This tiny ivory-colored beach island, which was once the set of the French-Italian movie Mutiny in the South Seas, is teeming with colorful shells and rare stones. On the other hand, the Aguirangan Island is popular among excursionists. This 1.5 hectares white sand beach is surrounded by beautiful coral formations stretching a kilometer or more.

The deer farm in Ocampo town, owned and operated by the Camarines Sur government, is completely stocked with different species of Australian deer such as blackbuck antelope, fallow deer, chital deer and elk. What started with 60 heads in 1996 has now multiplied to over 300 animals.

Ragay Gulf is the latest addition to the roster of ecological finds in the province. At Ragay, marine lovers will fall in love with its dolphins. Friendly spotted, Indo-Pacific, and bottlenose dolphins will greet visitors with their stunning displays. These dolphins are permanent residents of Ragay Gulf and can be spotted most frequently from January to July.

Discovering Camarines Sur with Caramoan as our handle is indeed a total treat. On our last night, we lit a bonfire. As we exchanged stories, we gazed at the starry sky and identified the constellations as shooting stars darted like fireworks above. This experience reminded me of our beautiful experience of stargazing in Pilanesberg in South Africa.

The following day, hours before we said good-bye to this paradise, we delightfully paddled from one tropical isle to another on a yellow kayak. This island-hopping adventure turned out to be a most profound experience. As we canoed and spelunked into the million-years-old limestone caves and mangrove trees, the serenity and tranquility was so overwhelming we were moved to tears. As this bountiful God-given creation enamored us immensely, we realized how short a lifetime is. We ought to spend every minute of it trying to do good to make a difference, to leave behind something that matters. We found ourselves, we found God and vowed never to forget this state of bliss and inner peace believing that each day is truly one more than we deserve.

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For details about Caramoan and Camarines Sur province, call +63(54)477-3159 and +63(54)475-7806, e-mail info@camarinessur.gov.ph, or visit its website at http://www.camarinessur.gov.ph.

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E-mail the author at miladay_star@yahoo.com.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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