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One of the country’s newly-created provinces, Dinagat Islands, has long been shrouded in mystery. After all, it’s been long associated with the Ecleo clan and the controversial sect they’ve founded. But the islands are not all about religion—with its largely unexplored natural wonders, visiting the province is a must.
Formally created as a separate province in 2011, the Dinagat Islands is more known to Filipinos as the headquarters of the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association (PBMA). This sect, which was founded by Ruben Ecleo, Sr. in the 1960s, is still quite influential. Other than the fact that the Ecleos still hold government positions in the province, many residents here are members of this group.
This impression—which is easily disproven by the hospitality you’d receive upon arrival—may have helped the Dinagat Islands become one of the country’s best-kept secrets. And it’s a secret that you’d wish you’ve discovered earlier. With the Dinagat Islands’ many white-sand shores and crystal-clear waters, plus unique plant and animal life, the province can easily give other popular Philippine tourist attractions a run for their money.
Regular ferry trips depart for San Jose, Dinagat from Surigao del Norte. The trip will take around one to one and a half hours.
With its hilly terrain, the most common form of transportation around the Dinagat Islands is by riding a habal-habal or motorcycle taxi. If you’re planning to go around the island, you can hire one for a set hourly rate, instead of on a per-destination basis.
Most journeys start at the province’s capital of San Jose. Here you’ll find thee PBMA Shrine, which houses the remains of Ruben Ecleo, Sr., the founder of the group. Then there’s the White Castle, perched on top of a hill that’s overlooking the town. While going inside is prohibited—after all, it is still used as the residence of the Ecleos—you can snap photos of it from the outside.
But of course, these are not your main reasons to go to the Dinagat Islands. Its main attractions, after all, are its natural wonders. From San Jose, you can continue your journey to the white sands of Sundayo Beach in Basilisa or Sangay Beach in Loreto. Or you can hike up Mount Redondo to the Natural Bonsai Forest, which is home to mini versions of trees—all growing without human intervention—in the Philippines.
One of the most popular activities in the Dinagat Islands is island-hopping. With many islets dotting the seas around the main Dinagat Island, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Some must-visit islands include Hinabyan Island in Cagdianao, which has white sand shores; and the Kisses Islets in Libjo, named as such due to its quaint limestone formations.
With an abundance of islands, there are also various watersports available. For example, you can go snorkeling in Pangabangan Island; surfing is also possible at Campijagit Point.
For a really unique experience, go on an hour-long trek to Lake Bababu. This is not your average lake—and not only because its waters are said to have healing powers. It is actually part freshwater and part seawater, due to an underwater cavern connecting the lake to the Surigao Strait. The result: turquoise waters that are sometimes so clear, it’s unreal.
Since the Dinagat Islands are not yet urbanized, don’t expect any big-name fast food restaurants here. The best meals can be enjoyed at the San Jose Public Market, where many of the locals also eat.
Due to the locals’ religious beliefs, smoking and drinking in public is not allowed. Hence, nightlife is virtually non-existent in San Jose. However, if you do really want a drink, better head off to the town of Sta. Cruz, where small karaoke bars operate.
Most accommodation in the Dinagat Islands consist of hostels, pension houses, and simple beach resorts. One of the most popular options is the Bahay Turista Mini Chalet in San Jose, operated by the province’s tourism office. There’s also the Pink Lodge in San Jose, Tagbirayan Beach Resort in Cagdianao, and Punta Buena Suerte Beach Resort in Libjo.
When riding the ferry from Surigao, ask for San Jose, not for Dinagat. This is because there’s a municipality in the Dinagat Islands province called Dinagat; it is around an hour from San Jose by land.
Bring your own gear. With the islands’ tourism industry still in its infancy, there may not be enough equipment available for snorkeling or diving.
Wear appropriate clothing when visiting the PBMA Shrine. Just like other religious sites around the world, you can be turned away if you arrive just wearing a tank top or shorts. To be on the safe side, make sure to wear pants and a shirt with sleeves. Make sure to ask permission first before entering as well.