Any trip worth taking and well-planned out very much ahead of time can easily be ruined by one, single factor: bad weather.

This we had to humbly accept last week when we revisited Biri Island in the northernmost tip of Northern Samar, facing the huge Pacific Ocean.

Planning for the Biri trip was made months in advance. It had to be summer time for calmer seas (crossing to Biri involves navigating the treacherous San Bernardino Strait – the major sea channel from the mighty Pacific Ocean “supplying” the Visayan Sea). Tickets were already bought way ahead of time to avail of bargain rates.

But the weather has been acting weird lately.

The La Niña phenomenon, Mr. Weatherman has warned.

In previous years, March is when the weather in Eastern Visayas starts turning warmer from warm; humid to more humid; and a hot, sweltering Holy Week just weeks away…

This year, however, the weather has gone askew. It’s been rains after rains after rains lately, flooding areas never been flooded before in Eastern Visayas, the Bicol area, and the eastern parts of Mindanao.

But since we were traveling as a group, with more than half coming from other places (2 from Cebu, 2 from Roxas City, 4 from Manila), we had to proceed as planned.

A flight to Catarman, Northern Samar from Manila was canceled and 2 on board could no longer join the group (on a return trip, 4 others had to make a detour trip to Tacloban when their return flight Catarman-Manila was likewise cancelled due to bad weather.)

When we left Tacloban for Catarman on a road trip, the weather was very gloomy. Very ominous.

But wonder of wonders: when we reached Biri and went to the rock formations, we were in for a pleasant surprise – sunny weather!

We were not so lucky, however, for the 2 succeeding days. Shooting for a sunrise was a battle against strong elements – fierce, whistling Pacific winds capable of knocking down heavy, tripod-mounted cameras. And skin-drenching rain (see 2 photos above).

Oh, well, life has to go on. And we had to simply live with it.

Here’s what I got…  Biri Island, still magnificent and awesome.

Trip was still worth it, if you ask me. ;)

Continue reading »

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It has been one of our family’s long-time dreams – to go and see Biri Island. For years we heard so much about Biri, about its famous rock formations, but sadly, also about stories of how dangerous it is to cross the sea to this remote island.

Finally the dream came true last week, when we all packed our bags and supplies and, together with some friends and our pet Kitchie, we headed off to Northern Samar.

The good news first: motoring from Tacloban to Calbayog via the Maharlika Highway is now a breeze! What was once described as the worst roads in the world is now a completely paved highway! However, it is the segment from Calbayog to Allen, Northern Samar which is still in such a sorry state. They all say it would be repaired soon… but that remains to be seen.

We left Tacloban Wednesday at 10AM, had lunch at Catbalogan and reached the town of Allen at around 5PM. Having decided to take the banca ride crossing in the morning and not in the afternoon out of fear of encountering thunderstorms, we checked in at Kinabranan Lodge, a  pension house in Allen where we earlier made reservations. Allen is just next to the town of Lavezares – the jump-off point to Biri.

We were up early the next morning and after breakfast headed on to Lavezares, a mere 15-minute drive away, where we found our chartered motorized banca awaiting. The Lavezares to Biri route takes about 45 minutes and can be treacherous during bad weather. Well, there were indeed areas where the ride was rough notwithstanding the relatively good weather, and I could only imagine what it’s like during the months of October to February which is the habagat season and where horror stories are experienced.

And so we reached Biri Island at around 10AM. Finally after all these years!

So you ask, what’s so special about Biri?

The huge, enormous and ancient rock formations, the rocky outcroppings and cliffs, and the giant pounding waves – these are what make Biri one of the most spectacular and picturesque travel sites the Philippines can brag about. Not an understatement.

Biri Island is among a cluster of 18 islands known as Balicuarto Islands off the northernmost tip of Samar. Biri Island is located in the most northerly part, at the San Bernardino Strait which forms the divide between the main Island of Luzon and the Island of Samar. This famous strait is where some 70% of seawater flows in and out of the Visayas area from the mighty Pacific Ocean so you can just imagine how ferocious the tidal current is in these areas.

Since the beginning of time Biri Island has been subjected to mighty pounding by natural forces – by strong typhoons and currents from the vast Pacific Ocean. Nature’s wrath has resulted in the incredible natural scenery that is now found in Biri. It is here where one can find one of the world’s most amazing natural rock formations.

It is hard to describe the rock formations. They look like giant marble cakes carved uniquely by nature.

Foremost of these magnificent rock formations are those of Magasang and the one at Bel-at.

At Magasang, above, one finds two huge, beautifully carved rocks, each about the size of a three-story building, standing separately on a wide flat rock bed.

Another big rock formation with a bat cave underneath can be found in Bel-at, above.

These spots alone have been slowly attracting both foreign and domestic tourists over the years.

Aside from these, there are scuba diving, surfing and snorkeling areas in crystal-clear blue waters. The whole area around the island has been proclaimed a Marine National Park by the national government, recognizing Biri Island as an area of important marine significance.

Biri Island is one quiet and laid back place. But the onset of modernization has found its way to the island. There are a couple of beach resorts owned by locals married to foreigners. They have their own websites. There are even air-conditioned rooms with reasonable rates. Electricity, however is only from 12 noon to 12 midnight. Generators take over the rest of the time. Mobile phone signals are strong in the island. Hence the kids were updated with their Facebook activities.

There are no major roads in the island. Only motorbikes or habal-habal without sidecars are what you ride on to get to the rock formations and to the other barangays.

We were all amazed at the rock formations we decided to waive off island hopping originally scheduled for the next day. We opted to return instead to the natural wonder of Biri’s rock monuments.

Truly awesome.

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HOW TO GET THERE

The jump-off point to Biri Island is in Lavezares, Northern Samar which is about 45 minutes from Catarman, 15 minutes from Allen.

Catarman is about 5-7 hours drive from Tacloban (via Maharlika Highway, then taking the Calbayog-Lope de Vega-Catarman route which is well paved all the way.) There are now regular flights from Manila to Catarman (please check Cebu Pacific,  Zest Air and Air Philippines.)

Allen is also about 5-6 hours non-stop drive from Tacloban, and can be reached via ferry boat from Matnog, Sorsogon.

The motorized banca ride (pumpboat) from Lavezares to Biri takes about 45 minutes. There are many regular trips (PhP50/pax) at the town’s docking area at the back of the public market. Chartered trips (pakyaw) costs PhP750.

There are regular big pumpboat trips from Matnog direct to Biri but I have no further info on skeds and rates.

WHERE TO STAY IN BIRI

There are about 4 to 5 resorts/lodging houses in Biri which charge reasonable rates anywhere from PhP500/day for non-aircon/fan rooms to PhP1,200 for aircon rooms. These “resorts” are mostly owned by foreigners married to locals. They have websites which can be googled (search: Biri Island, Northern Samar). We stayed at Villa Amor.

WHAT TO BRING

Swimwear, sunblock, snorkeling gear (mask, snorkel and fins) and your own scuba diving gear if you’re into it; and cameras. Bottled water, canned goods and snack items, too, although they can be bought at the town’s public market and some sari-sari stores.

There are no established restaurants there but one can get help from lodging personnel to have your meals cooked and even brought to the rock formations.

Electricity is only from 12 noon to 12 midnight.

Mobile phone signals of major telecoms are strong in the island.

GETTING AROUND THE ISLAND

The only means of land transpo around the island is the habal-habal (single motorbikes). Depending on your destination, they have set charges posted at the town’s pier. Anywhere from PhP5 – 30/pax.

FOR FURTHER INFO & TOUR ASSISTANCE

Please contact Leyte Gulf Travel & Tours:  calle Zaragosa, Independencia St., Tacloban City (63)(53) 321-7966, 523-7966, 09173060168

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