Cagayan, a vast province located at the northeastern tip of Luzon, is home to numerous tourism destinations, ranging from historic to natural.
The town of Sta. Ana, in particular, is teeming with such attractions. It has waterfalls, islands, beaches, a swarm of enchanting fireflies, a centuries-old lighthouse, and a campsite—all of which can be visited in a quick weekend trip.
The humble town of Sta. Ana is the location of a world-famous nature getaway, Palaui Island. It was the site of the reality show Survivor USA twice. It appeared in CNN Travel’s list of 100 best beaches at 25th place in 2016, before moving up to 10th place the following year.
This global hype is well-deserved. Its beaches including Engano Cove and Siwangag Cove feature crystal clear waters, and shores filled with white sand and washed up fragments of corals. Its four snorkeling sites—Engaño, Peace Sanctuary in Punta Verde, Siwangag, and Isabelle’s Garden—are rich in unspoiled coral reefs.
There’s even a 105-hectare mangrove forest which provides shelter for wild species, reduces coastal flooding, and protects water quality, that guests can visit to simply see or plant seedlings.
Palaui island’s beauty is even more visible at the century-old Cape Engano.
A surviving piece of history, the lighthouse and its surrounding fortress was built in 1892 and is one of the four lighthouses built during the Spanish colonial period. Back then, it served as a guide for incoming ships.
Today, it still emits light at night through the 300 LED bulbs placed inside the 11-meter high octagonal rock tower, which is helping local fisherfolks.
Meanwhile, little remains of the housing pavilion around the tower that served as an office and workers quarter.
Though it’s a 30-minute hike from the island’s receiving area, with the first half of the trail partly muddy and the latter half partially cemented, the view from the lighthouse is well worth it.
From the tower situated 110 meters above sea level, visible are the Babuyan Island and the nearby pair of islets, Dos Hermanas Island, on the north, Pacific Ocean on the west, and the Engaño cove on the west
Edwin Tabuccul, a Palaui Island local and tour guide, considers Cape Engano a must-visit in Sta. Ana.
“You’ve never been to Sta. Ana if you did not visit Cape Engaño],” he says. “‘The lighthouse is the landmark of this place.”
From Cape Engano and back to the island’s receiving area, guests can go for another hike to Punta Verde.
Located on the other side of the island, the place is where the locals reside. It’s also where Nature Village is, which is the only camping and lodging area allowed within the island. Palaui Island, after all, is a declared Protected Seascape and Landscape.
In the same village, the props used in the filming of Survivor USA—a tiny shed and torches each contestant owns—are on display.
There are three trails to take going to Punta Verde: Leonardo, Lagunzad, and Siwangag.
The Lagunzad trail is seven kilometers long and offers views of the beach, mangroves, forested areas, and grassland. Leonardo’s trail, meanwhile, passes through a hidden gem, the Baratubut Falls, a 15 feet high waterfall. Here, guests can relax and cool down before what Tabucul describes as a more challenging, four-kilometer hike that gets steep at certain points but as per usual, is never without rewarding views.
The Siwangag trail, as the name implies, is connected to the Siwangag cove.
“This trail divides the island,” Tabucul explains. “The trek lasts for an hour or more, depending on the pace of the visitors.”
If ever guests have had enough hiking for the day, however, one-hour boat rides can take them to Punta Verde.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, including meat, vegetable, and seafood dishes (Php150-Php300) are also available here, courtesy of Palaui Island Women’s Catering: Village Kitchen.
After a long day of swimming or hiking, guests can relax through the island’s affordable spa services: full body (Php300), foot (Php150), hand (Php150), head (Php150), back (Php200).
Before heading back to the town proper, visitors can stop by at Sta. Ana’s own version of Boracay’s Crocodile Island.
It’s conveniently located between Palaui Island and Punta Verde, and just five minutes away by boat from the Port of San Vicente, the pick up and drop off point for island visitors.
Known locally as Manidad Island, the rocky island gets its alternative name from its shape, which can be likened to a sleeping crocodile.
Parts of the island disappear during high tide, but resurfaces when it’s low tide. Standing atop Manidad Island is best for an early morning visit to watch the sunrise.
Apart from Palaui Island’s Baratubut Falls, the town of Sta. Ana also has Buwacag Falls. The four-level waterfall with a basin at least 17-feet deep is found in Brgy. Sta. Clara.
Its discovery goes way back during the turn of the 20th century, through locals namely Maplit Ortega and his friend Manolo Tugawen. It was also Ortega and Tugawen who gave the falls its name which means the thunderous sound of flowing water from a high-level stream falling over a cliff, much like a step in a bedrock.
Today, the waterfalls and its surrounding areas have become what is known as the Buwacag Eco-Tourism Site. Here, people can picnic, swim, or even trek.
To cap off the weekend trip to Sta. Ana, guests can head to Barangay Casagan for its enchanting firefly-watching experience.
It begins at the Barangay Hall, the jump-off point for all visitors keen on trying firefly-watching. After a quick briefing, each tour guide can take two tourists on a 15 to 30-minute walk to the site.
In Casagan, fireflies dwell and thrive amongst what the locals call the kulabban tree, which is abundant in the area. At around 9 PM, when it’s pitch black, all the tiny, soft-bodied beetles begin to glow.
“The kulabban trees here are the habitat of fireflies,” says Charles Castillo, a local resident and a firefly-watching tour guide. “These resemble Christmas trees because there are so many fireflies lighting them up.”
The duration of firefly-watching can be as long as an hour for the tour guide’s service (Php300).
The best time to watch fireflies, according to Castillo, is during the summer, when it’s not rainy and windy, and when there’s no full moon.
For pre- and post-firefly watching experience food, guests can rely on Kulinarya de Casagan, a group of women who are also locals cooking up food like native chicken tinola, sauteed vegetables, and diningdeng, an Ilocano vegetable dish.
Their bestseller, however, is the Filipino favorite, bibingka (Php130/box).
Two to three times a week, the group produces warm boxes of this rice cake, which are made out of pure milled glutinous rice, along with other ingredients like peanuts, coconut milk, sugar, and other secret ingredients. It’s then cooked in a clay pot lined with banana leaves before placing lit charcoal above and below it for even heat distribution. The whole process takes about two hours.
Kulinaray de Casagan’s bibingka is available for pre-order on their official Facebook page and will be ready for pick up once guests arrive.
All tourist destinations in Cagayan have health and safety protocols in place to protect locals and visitors alike. Everyone is expected to comply by wearing face masks, regularly washing their hands, and practicing physical distancing.
To check out up-to-date information regarding local destinations that are open and the safety protocols and requirements needed for each location, you may visit www.philippines.travel/safetrip or download the Travel Philippines app at app.philippines.travel or the Google Playstore.