San Jose in Occidental Mindoro was one memorable trip and photo assignment for me. To summarize the chronicles, here’s the article I wrote for the June 2009 Issue of Philippine Airline’s Mabuhay Magazine.
Secrets of Mindoro
Text and Photos by Ferdz Decena
The mere mention of Mindoro conjures images of the more popular Puerto Galera and Apo Reef of Sablayan come to most people’s minds. But is there anything beyond these popular places that is worth discovering?
After spending three days in and around San Jose, the gateway to Occidental Mindoro, the answers came to me. Think of discovering unspoiled beaches, serene island retreats, beautiful nature walks, indigenous cultural encounters, and sumptuous food. Imagine a wild encounter with a rare animal found only in Mindoro.
Named after Saint Joseph, its patron saint, San Jose is the most populous municipality in Mindoro. The inhabitants are a varied mix — Ilocanos, Batanguenos, Visayans and Mindanaoans. A portion of population also includes the indigent Mangyans and foreign immigrants. This got me real curious — why do these people who were once just visitors to San Jose decided to settle here for good and make it their home? With that question hanging, I set off to explore Mindoro with an open mind and in the jovial company of local tourism officer and radio commentator, Mar Raro, along with the De Lemos family of Villa Paulina Beach Resort and Spa (Mobile no +639285247394; villapaulina.multiply.com; room starts at Php 2500/US$53) . Here are what I’ve discovered:
You’ll Get Close to Nature. Nature lovers will surely enjoy the scenic pathways leading to the Cansubong Caves in Iling Island. With narrow cemented trails jutting out of the sides of the craggy lime stones battered by the waves, the path snakes through a forest leading up to a higher ground where a majestic panorama of the sea and Ilin’s ruggedly beautiful shoreline awaits. The trail continues downward leading to caves with huge chambers that gleam with impressive stalactites and stalagmite formations. Hand-built by former San Jose Mayor, Atty Ernesto Javarata, Cansubong Cave Resort is more of a labor of love he’s happy to share with everyone. Cottages and resort facilities picturesquely perched above the limestone cliff rocks are available for picnics or overnight stays.
You’ll Enjoy Soaking Up the Sun. Standing out from the cool hues of the sea and the sky, the white sands of Manadi Island commonly known as White Island, shimmer under the blazing sun. Visible even from the distant shores of San Jose, it beckons to beach lovers and sun worshippers like a sea siren to explore its waters teeming with aquatic life. The beach is very easy to explore as it stretches for only a mile. However, the beachgoer is advised to take precaution as the shores of Manadi, which locally translates to “sudden appearance”, is home to turtle eggs waiting to hatch.
You’ll Want to Take a Dip in its Crystal Clear Waters. Boasting of fine and powdery white sands, crystal clear, turquoise waters and stately coconut trees, Inasakan Beach is a slice of paradise on Iling Island. A small cove with limestone rocks shelter each side of the beach and the seabed slopes gradually making it a private getaway perfect for families with kids. Inasakan can be reached in roughly an hour by boat from San Jose going through the Ambulong strait.
You’ll Indulge in Peaceful Retreats. For those looking for a place for quiet retreats or to simply lose oneself amidst the natural beauty of nature, Ambulong Island has a smaller island that can cradle city weary folks eager for relaxing escapes.
South of the island, at the center of a cove hugged by dramatic limestone walls stands a quaint small island with a beautiful rugged coastline shaped by the elements on one side and fringed by picturesque floating bamboo cottages the other side. This is Grace Island Resort, an enchanting nature escape. With waters teeming with different underwater species, one can even meet the resident tortoise enclosed in its marine sanctuary. For overnight guests, bamboo beds lie on the floating bamboo cottages, with the waves freely rocking one to sleep.
You’ll go off on Exciting Adventures. Driving through rough and dusty roads, we headed to Barangay Monte Claro, northeast of San Jose City proper to get up close to the rare Tamaraws. This endangered species of buffalo, scientifically known as Anoa Mindorensi, can only be found in the Philippines and is endemic to Mindoro Island.
No sooner than I shook off the dust from the one-hour ride, I joined our motley group in crossing a cable wire bridge which the locals use to cross to the other side of the river when the water runs high. On the other side lies the Tamaraw Gene Pool Farm center, home to the Tamaraw Conservation Program, a group established in 1979, responsible for preserving and protecting the endangered tamaraws.
Here, we met two captive tamaraws, the young and energetic Kali, and his pensive mother, Mimi. Tamaraws are extremely territorial creatures — in fact, the two are contained in their own enclosures, large enough for them to roam around. Tamaraws are characterized by their unique V-shaped horns. I was actually expecting to see humongous creatures but found them compact, about 60-70% the size of a full-grown carabao.
Sadly, their numbers have dwindled to an alarming 265 from over a thousand 10 years ago. TCP (Tamaraw Conservation Program) head coordinator Danilo Roca, explained that the large decrease in numbers was caused by a spread of disease from imported cattle, deforestation and poaching. The TCP and the local government are closely monitoring the tamaraws by doing regular counts at the nearby mountains of Iglit-Baco and studying their breeding patterns in an effort to preserve and increase their numbers.
You’ll Discover the Rich Mangyan Culture . On our way back to town, we first passed by a couple of villages of the indigenous ethnic group, the Mangyans. The original settlers of the island, there are actually seven tribes of Mangyans spread across Mindoro. The tribe in San Jose is the Buhid Mangyans, who grow rice and root crops as well as create colorful bead accessories and intricate weaving. They are also known for having preserved their ancient scripts descended from the brahmi scripts in Indonesia.
The Mangyans may no longer be sporting their traditional garbs but most of them are still living the way they lived since the ancient times. A visit to the village is like going back in time as most of the houses are still made out of tree barks with cogon grass roofs.
You’ll Marvel at Historical Ruins. Entangled with the roots of an old tree, the ruins of Mangarin reminded me of a portion of the Ta Prohm Temple in Angkor in Cambodia. The remains of what used to be a small watchtower, has a significant role in the province’s past. Historical records show that during the 14th century, Chinese traders regularly drop anchor in Mangarin, making it the oldest settlement in Occidental Mindoro. The watchtower was used to warn and ward off pirates including the notoriously-famous, Limahong.
You’ll Celebrate Beautiful Sunsets and Perfect Days. After each day’s exploration of San Jose, I’ve always found myself staring at the beautiful sunset from the dining area of Villa Paulina. The resort has all the perks to make anyone feel relaxed — the homey atmosphere, the exquisitely-prepared food, the elegant suite rooms, and not to forget, the rejuvenating steam bath and Swedish massage to cap a perfect day.
My stay in San Jose led me to discover the surprising splendor of the province that I wasn’t expecting to find in this part of Mindoro. It leads me back to my question: so why did most visitors decided to settle here for good years ago? Was it the pristine beaches, the food, the backdrop of verdant forest or the friendly people? I have a hunch that it maybe all of the above reasons. One thing I’m certain about is that my brief stay in San Jose made me feel like it’s home.
How to get to San Jose Mindoro:
There are direct flights to San Jose via Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific and Zest Air
San Jose can also be reached by land and sea RORO. Check out Dimple Star Transit at Tel. No. +63.2.862.3075 with Bus Terminals at Ali Mall, Araneta center, Cubao, Quezon City; Alabang, Muntinlupa City
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.