Destination: Santa Ana, Cagayan
Destination: Sta. Ana, Cagayan
Santa Ana, Cagayan is home to breathtaking places - from pristine blue waters and fine sand, to rolling hills and enchanting colonial structures, to mystical caves and endearing people. It is dubbed as “Untouched Paradise”, “Gateway to the Pacific”, “Game Fishing Mecca”, “Luzon’s Last Frontier” and “Marine Sanctuary”. Indeed, paradise by any other name is still paradise. Prepare to be captivated.
The Blossoming of Santa Ana CAGAYAN
Text and Photos by Nicole R. Pinto
The clear shores of Anguib beach
Development is change; a transition, though not overnight, from one condition to another that is deemed better. For the people of Santa Ana, development is a monolithic word, the reality of which appears elusive. But these days, they know better – it is something to be worked at cooperatively, and not impossible to bring to fruition. Development is an aspiration for greater things, and this is what they are collectively out to get.
Santa Ana rediscovered
Santa Ana, Cagayan may well be one of the 7,107 other islands in the archipelago, but it definitely isn’t like any other. It is touted as Luzon’s last frontier, nestling on the edge of the northernmost province of Cagayan which juts out from Luzon like a huge thumb. It is 158 kilometers (or two hours) away from Tuguegarao, the capital of the province, and consists of 16 barangays. From Manila, it would take you a good 11 hours (if you’re on a good bus or van) to 15 (if you’re on a bad one) to reach it. And despite the splendid scenery on the side, it will definitely trigger restlessness and make you ask the age-old travel question, “Are we there yet?” like a broken record. Trust me, though, it is worth every hump and bump on the road.
The people of Santa Ana treasure the old and embrace the new: an Agta (native tribe) participating in the street dancing.
Although I’ve heard a lot about Cagayan (both from having studied it in school and friends who have visited it), it was my first trip to the place. When we got there and gave my arms and legs the stretch they needed, I began to notice things like the very few lamp posts on the streets, some unfinished roads, sun-tanned kids mindlessly frolicking under the sun, a whiff of salt from the breeze coming in from the sea, fishermen getting ready to make a living for that day, people treating us warmly and with a bit of excitement because we were media people come a-visiting.
A boy endures the heat of the sun as he celebrates the Viray festival
Santa Ana is a fourth class municipality, and that just pretty much explains the unassuming setting I woke up to early that morning. Truth be told, the wonders of electricity reached this municipality sometime between the late Eighties and early Nineties!
A girl dressed as a snail
Most of the town’s citizens make their living by farming or fishing. According to tourism officials, out of the 44,130 hectares of abundant land, only a little over 7,000 hectares are cultivated. And although rice is the major crop and staple food of the people, only 1,640 hectares are irrigated. People in the coastal barangays engage in fishing – for food and as a livelihood. The rich fishing grounds yield lobsters, octopus, yellow fin tuna, blue marlin, skipjack, tanggigue, and other sought-after varieties. Inland, fishing grounds also teem with freshwater fish, crabs and shrimps – yet another thing to love about Santa Ana. They have, arguably, the best (biggest) lobsters around.
The enchanting 19th century Spanish colonial lighthouse, Cape Engaño
Not only is the food great here, Santa Ana is home to many wonders that are considered by many as “Untouched Paradise.” Word has it that Santa Ana is Boracay, Palawan, Bohol, and Puerto Galera rolled into one. And I can attest to that. Of the many breathtaking places in Santa Ana, I was fortunate enough to have been captivated by Anguib beach, Palaui Island, and Cape Engaño.
A girl shows a plate of flying fish, when the bid for longest grille concluded
Three days in paradise
We were welcomed with a sumptuous breakfast (as were all our meals) at the snug Jotay’s resort where we lodged. The first order of the day was to watch the street dancing event in celebration of the second Viray festival. As early as 8 am, elementary and high school students gathered under the scorching heat of the sun to present dances and skits alluding to the Viray, a large wooden flat boat propelled by sails and used by fishermen, leaders, and well-off families for fishing operations, commerce and trade, and as a means of transport.
Flamboyant costumes and a well-rehearsed performance during the street dance
According to the people of Sta. Ana, the Viray Festival, which was initially launched in June 2005, was conceptualized to highlight the boat’s significant role in history and socio-economic metamorphosis of the town and people of Santa Ana. “If all of us will ride the Viray of today, then all of us will ride the Viray of development”, interjects Pinky Rodriguez, head of the Santa Ana tourism council and wife of the Mayor. Students from different schools and levels who participated in the street dancing competed against one another with flamboyant costumes and props, dramatic body make- up, exciting stunts, and well-rehearsed performances.
After yet another sumptuous lunch – fresh crabs, lobsters, fish, and vegetables –we went for a dip at Anguib beach, a 20-minute boat ride from Jotay’s resort. This beach boasts of fine white sand and glistening blue waters. It is Boracay untouched and definitely incomparable to Puerto Galera as it is considered one of the country’s virgin islands. Because there are no resorts or inhabitants on this island, pitching tents and camping out here would be a great option for the adventurous.
The second day was a more adventurous one for all of us as we took another boat ride to Palaui island, arguably the best that Santa Ana has to offer. As our boat neared the island, we were immediately captivated by shores as pristine as Palawan’s. And just like Palawan, Palaui does not limit adventurers to taking a dip in the sea, snorkeling, and diving. It offers an all-around experience because its hills beckon the trekker, and its forest, home to many endangered species, shelters a waterfall. The crystal clear waters are more than tempting, and the white sand – which you will realize are actually dead corals when you set foot on the island – is simply beautiful. And it doesn’t end there. There is also a Spanish colonial lighthouse built in the late 1800’s that sits on top of a hill, which the locals call Cape Engaño.
This is as far as Luzon goes: the very tip of Luzon touching the Pacific Ocean
We trekked Cape Engaño to explore the lighthouse, said to be vital during the Galleon trade. I found it magical and enchanting and just a little eerie, which made it even more interesting and connected me to the past. Although run-down, it was obviously once majestic. From the top, I had a magnificent view of the Pacific Ocean, the two islands Dos Hermanas, the Babuyan group of islands, rolling hills that resemble waves of green carpet, the ocean and white sand beaches. Now I knew what it meant to be at the “Gateway to the Pacific.” This was bliss, and I was awestruck by the sheer beauty of nature.
It is unfortunate, though, that such splendid places don’t get the attention they deserve.
Mayor Vic Rodriguez, and wife and head of Sta. Ana’s tourism council Mrs. Pinky Rodriguez
Our last day was spent witnessing an obscure municipality attempt to make itself known. Santa Ana, Cagayan took a shot at a Guinness world record on the longest grille. This is not an actual entry, though, just an application for the approval of the Guinness board. In fact, “vying for the longest grille started as a joke!” explains Pinky Rodriguez. “It was conceived when we were thinking of ways to boost Santa Ana’s tourism.” To them, this was a stepping-stone to achieving that goal, and ultimately improving the quality of life of the townspeople. All 16 barangays of Sta. Ana participated in the event, which started at 6am. They enthusiastically prepared their tasty flying fish and filled up the 4-kilometer grille. Everyone was in high spirits and the energy was contagious.
Aspiring for greater things
When people live in a simple place and life is uncomplicated, their needs and wants are unfussy. This is how it has been for the people Santa Ana. They were content meeting their basic needs and were not too concerned about having savings or buying extravagant things. “The inhabitants of Santa Ana are very minimalist people, and have a very simplistic and traditional way of thinking,” Mayor Vic Rodriguez says. “Before, they were doubtful of foreigners or tourists, for they thought that these ‘outsiders’ will only mistreat them.” But progress was slow so the mayor began thinking of ways to boost the local economy. Tourism seemed to be the answer.
The people of Sta. Ana vie for the Guinness record of the longest grille: 4km of grilles and flying fish
The impetus for putting a premium on and realizing the potential of tourism in Santa Ana was Unilever’s “Christmasterpiece,” a landmark-making contest, says Mrs. Linda Sepla, wife of the Vice Mayor. Santa Ana managed to join the contest and this simple act of participation fostered cooperation and a collective awareness of the city’s – and its people’s – potential.
Indeed, Santa Ana, Cagayan has a lot to be proud of. Despite its status as fourth-class municipality, it has the means to hoist itself out of the backwaters, so to speak. Palaui Island was dubbed by marine biologist and former Environment secretary Angel Alcala as a marine sanctuary, with more species of aquatic life than Palawan. It is also one of the best diving spots in the country. Santa Ana is also called the “Game Fishing Mecca” where tourists have been flocking every summer since the 1970’s, despite the absence of electricity in the city. This, according to Mayor Rodriguez has been a long-standing cue of their potential as a tourist spot. Their citizens, though traditional and used to a simple way of life, are starting to embrace change.
The town’s welfare is also in good hands, as the former mayors and incumbent Vic Rodriguez have worked hard at keeping their crime rate very low. They have no drug problems in the community, which is impressive considering Santa Ana is an entry point of cargo and shipment. Asked how he does it, Mayor Rodriguez replies, “For me, it’s about ‘nipping the bud’. I personally talk to the people as kababayan to kababayan, as man-to-man. It is a small town, and almost everyone knows everyone. You wouldn’t want to break the law.” He believes in making people aware of their rights and in turn, expects them to be responsible.
I was also curious about how he was able to change the mindset of people with regard to tourism. He said that he talks of a “residual value” of tourism to his constituents, specifically to fisher folk and farmers. “Take for example a sari-sari store,” he told his people. “Without the tourists, you will be earning a certain amount of money. But with the tourists, they bring along drivers who might not want food from hotels, are not used to eating steak, and so these drivers buy from your sari-sari store. Now that’s extra income.” Expanding the market means expanding incomes, he also said. “We can only give opportunities. We’re not supposed to make constituents heavily depend on us. I firmly adhere to the saying, ‘Teach a man how to fish instead of giving him fish, and he will eat for the rest of his life.’”
Indeed, the blossoming of something this beautiful is one that shouldn’t be missed. After all, paradise by any name is still paradise. And although there’s still a lot to be done, a lot has already been done.
And that’s just the beginning.
How to get there
There are about 12 bus companies plying the Manila-Tuguegarao route via the Maharlika Highway with daily trips. Take the evening trip from Manila. For independent motorists, take the North Luzon Expressway and exit at the Sta. Rita Exit. There are Manila-Tuguegarao flights as well. From Tuguegarao, take the Caltrans bus to Sta. Ana.