Whether or not one has been to Palaui Island, the name likely rings a bell. That’s because the island in Sta. Ana, Cagayan—located in the northeastern tip of mainland Luzon—is the site of the reality show, Survivor USA, not just once, but twice. In 2016, CNN Travel even ranked the island 25th in its list of 100 best beaches around the world. The following year, it moved up to 10th place in the same list.
All this attention is well-deserved as Palaui Island’s features—white sand beaches, undisturbed corals, camping site, and even a century-old lighthouse—speak for itself.
Before the world took notice, though, the few tourists who came by were the first to spread the word about the island’s beauty.
“It was in 2006 when a number of tourists began visiting the island,” says Edwin Tabucul, a Palaui Island local and a Department of Tourism (DOT)-accredited tour guide. “The good thing about it was when there are two or three visitors here going home to Manila, they would come back here with more guests.”
In 2010, tourism eventually picked up prompting the DOT, Cagayan Economic Zone Authority (CEZA), the local government of Sta. Ana, Blue Water Consultancy, and Palaui Environmental Protector Association (PEPA)—an organization composed of island locals, including Tabucul—to develop the area as an ecotourism destination while ensuring its protection. Palaui Island, after all, is a declared Protected Seascape and Landscape.
This included everything from camp site development to trail management training, enabling the local residents in providing services to visitors.
Today, these services are readily available for tourists to try and ultimately, explore the 8,000-hectare island’s natural attractions.
The island, which takes about an hour boat ride from Sta. Ana’s Port of San Vicente, is home to pristine white-sand beaches: Engaño Cove, Siwangag Cove, and Punta Verde. In any of these locations, guests can freely swim or simply chill. The island’s coral-rich waters also make it an ideal place to go snorkeling.
“Palaui is rich in corals, specifically the branching and table corals,” Tabucul says. “You would notice that there are corals at the shore, instead of sand. It’s due to frequent typhoons, which cause the corals to drift ashore.”
The island has a total of four snorkeling sites, all with rich and unspoiled coral reefs: Engaño, Peace Sanctuary in Punta Verde, Siwangag, and Isabelle’s Garden.
Within the island, there’s a 105-hectare mangrove forest that guests can visit or better yet, help thrive. Tourists can plant seedlings themselves, which can help mangroves do its functions: a shelter for wildlife species, reduction of coastal flooding, and protect water quality.
Nature isn’t the only attraction in Palaui Island. In fact, one is man-made—a lighthouse called Cape Engaño.
Situated at the summit of a hill, the tower is 110 meters above sea level.
“The Spaniards built this,” Tabucul shares. “They planned it in 1887, started construction in 1888, and finished it in 1892.”
One of the four lighthouses built during the Spanish colonial period, Cape Engaño and its 11-meter octagonal tower made of two foot-thick rocks served as a guide for incoming ships.
Today, even after over a century, light is still visible even in the nearby Camiguin Island, through the 300 LED bulbs placed inside the tower. It’s now helping local fisherfolks.
Meanwhile, little remains of the housing pavilion around the tower that served as an office and workers quarter.
Tourists are not allowed to go inside the tower anymore for safety purposes, but the view makes the 30-minute hike up the mountain worth it: 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.
It’s for the place’s rich history and stunning sights that Tabucul considers the lighthouse as a must-visit. The National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) has also declared it a National Cultural Treasure—one of five in the whole Cagayan Valley region.
“You’ve never been to Sta. Ana if you did not visit Cape Engaño,” he says. “‘The lighthouse is the landmark of this place.”
Palaui Island’s mountains are also its defining features, which is why trekking is one of its main activities. There are three trails to choose from: Leonardo, Lagunzad, and Siwangag. All these trails begin at Punta Verde, a fifteen-minute boat ride away from Port of San Vicente.
The Lagunzad trail, which leads to Cape Engaño, is seven kilometers long and offers views of the beach, mangroves, forested areas, and grassland. Leonardo’s trail, meanwhile, passes through Punta Verde’s 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. The end of the trail, however, is a rewarding view of the coast.
The Siwangag trail, as the name implies, leads 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.”
For those who wish to stay within the island overnight, camping is possible at Punta Verde. This residential village is where the island’s locals reside. In the middle of the community is the Nature Village, the only tent campsite (Php250/person) for tourists.
For more spacious accommodations, rooms (Php1,200/four guests) and eco-lodges (Php1,200/four guests) that resemble native huts are available. In the same village, the prop used in the filming of Survivor USA—a tiny shed and torches each contestant owns—are on display.
For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, guests can trust the Palaui Island Women’s Catering: Village Kitchen to cook up meat, vegetable, and seafood dishes (Php150-Php300).
Completing a relaxing time in the island are affordable spa services from local women of the island: full body (Php300), foot (Php150), hand (Php150), head (Php150), back (Php200)
Tabucul and fellow guides offer tour packages to visitors.
Mini Tour North (Php1,500) is a guided half-day trek from Punta Verde to Cape Engaño, inclusive of packed lunch and snack.
Mini Tour South (Php1,350), meanwhile, is a guided half-day trek at Punta Verde, starting from the Leonardo trail then going to Narrang dawer, Baratubut Falls, Butress Alley, then the mangrove transplantation. This also includes a morning snack and lunch at the Nature Village.
For a water activity-focused experience of the island, guests can opt for a tour package called Reef Day (Php2,550). Included in the package is whole-day guided snorkeling at up to 2 sites, use of mask, snorkel, fins, and personal floatation device, as well as morning and afternoon snacks and packed lunch.
For mountaineers, Trek Day (Php2,100) is the best bet. From Punta Verde, a guide will take guests on a whole day trek to Cape Engaño via Lagunzad trail, inclusive of packed lunch and morning and afternoon snacks.
For a fuller experience of the island, Tabucul recommends what the guides call as 642 (Php4,300).
“I highly recommend this because every spot on the island can be visited,” he explains. “There are instances where guests are still enjoying the view and we wouldn’t want to rush them and this is why 642 has no time limit unlike other tour packages.”
The package includes, as the name indicates, six activities for two days: mangrove planting, lighthouse tour, snorkeling at marine sanctuary, hiking along Lagunzad Trail, weaving with demonstration, and overnight stay at Nature Village with homestay accommodation or tent with beddings. It also comes with meals from lunch of day 1 to snack of day 2, and guides.
An upgraded 642—aptly called 642 Plus (Php7,200)—adds island hopping in the tour package. This means that guests can go on a half day tour to Snake Island, Crocodile Island, locally known as Manidad Island, and the Dos Hermanas Islands. There’s also an additional night of camping at Nature Village or homestay accommodation with beddings, and additional breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack.
Meanwhile, boat rental is not included in any of the packages and rates vary (for instance, Php1,500 for Mini Tour North and Php7,000 for 642) depending on the activities and the duration of the tour.
As a Protected Landscape and Seascape, it is imperative to prevent any destructive human exploitation.
Even before they were formally trained, PEPA and its member guides have been strictly enforcing dos and don’ts when visiting the island. It’s a practice that exists to this day.
At the foot of Cape Engano, for instance, guides like Tabucul brief tourists prior to the trek going to the lighthouse.
“When it’s a protected area, there are rules that need to be followed,” he says . “It’s ‘garbage in, garbage out’ here, and vandalism at the lighthouse and getting any type of plant or corals are prohibited.”
At Punta Verde’s Nature Village, guests are told to dispose of their trash in designated bins. It is also the only campsite allowed inside Palaui.
“PEPA deliberately set up the camping site there,” Tabucul explains. “This is to monitor those who are staying on the island overnight.”
How to get there
By land: Ride a Tuguegarao-bound bus along Cubao or Buendia. Take Sta. Rita exit to Nueva Ecija, leading to the Cagayan Valley region. Cagayan’s capital is 485 kilometers away from Metro Manila, so land trips are typically 10-12 hours long.
By air: From Manila, book a 45-minute flight to Tuguegarao City or Cauayan City for faster travel time. You may check with local carriers for daily flights going to Cagayan Valley.
It’s highly recommended to book tours with DOT-accredited tour operators so that van rides are easily available to get to Sta. Ana, which is three hours away. From there, ride a boat going to Palaui Island.
Outsource the Planning
For a seamless trip, you may leave the planning to DOT’s accredited tour operators in Cagayan:
(078) 305 0339, 0926 324 4702
For Department of Tourism-accredited accommodations, visit the official Cagayan Valley Tourism website, region2fun.ph.
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 philippines.travel/safetrip or download the Travel Philippines app at app.philippines.travel, Apple Store, or Google Playstore.