I'm not sure why, but somehow I always pictured Leyte as kind of boring...and flat. Instead, as my flight from Cebu prepared for landing in Tacloban, I was shocked to see beautiful, mountainous terrain out the window! Add to that coconut-tree lined white-sand beaches, and you see why my excitement really began to grow...
Words & Photos By Nathan Allen
Touring Leyte's WWII history has always been on my bucket list. While visiting some friends in Singapore, they asked what my next trip might be. I told them it could be Leyte, but I had no real plans for it. Well, the power of suggestion is strong...and I do believe that "The universe conspires to help the dreamer".
The next day I was hit with the urge to check flights. Boom. Promo flights, both to the Philippines, and also to Tacloban from Cebu. As we say back in California:
It's on like Donkey Kong.
Before I knew it, I had reached out to my readers and lined up a pretty incredible trip, including a super nice motorbike (courtesy of Haven's Rentals in Tacloban). If you're wondering, Leyte is a huge island province in the southern Philippines - one of the largest, I believe.
Time For the Open Road...On My Way To Kananga
I was on a mission to get to Palompon, the jump off point to beautiful Kalanggaman island. I zipped through the towns of Palo, Tunga, and quite a colorful fiesta in Carigara. Normally I would stop and enjoy the festivities, but I had an island tour lined up, so I had to push on. I started winding up the beautiful mountain roads outside town, and noticed the air cooling a bit.
Soon, I headed over the pass and made my way down into a plain of lush, green rice fields.
These are the rice paddies along the highway in Kananga. Knowing that I was making good time, I decided to get off the bike and take some landscape pictures. As you can see my motorbike was quite customized, including a nice windshield (although I'm so tall...my head popped over the top! Haha.)
Kananga Parish Church
There is a similar looking church in Palo, but I was in a hurry when I rode passed it (plus the sky was cloudy there). I'm quite picky about the skies and colors in my photos. Anyhow, I was thrilled to see this beautiful alternative on my way through Kananga.
(There was a actually a 6.5 magnitude earthquake that happened as I was riding the motorbike out of Tacloban. I didn't even realize. Sadly, a building collapsed in Kananga. One person died, but fortunately, all the others were rescued.)
Palompon Town, and San Juan Beach
I arrived in the (surprisingly) bustling town of Palompon just before sunset. I asked a local where a good place to photograph was, and they pointed me to San Juan Beach. By the time I found it, the light was really fading. Still had enough time to chat with friendly beachgoers and snap some photos, though.
I always love being on the beach at this time in the Philippines. You can find kids playing in the water while their fishermen fathers bring in the boats. Yes, island smiles abound when things finally cool off each day.
I said goodby to the surfers and skimboarders, and made my way back to Asayas Pension Plaza, where I ended up staying the night.
Funny how my life works, this place was recommended to me, and when I walked in the front door, I noticed old cameras and photography themed decor all over the room! The owner is Mr. Juanito D. Asaya, a renowned photographer who even snapped photos of former President Marcos water skiing back in the 70s. He even had an old Ricoh SLR on the shelf - the same brand I use today.
(Continued below, but I do hope you'll follow along with me)
Coastal Fishing Village of Ipil (Palompon)
The next morning I set out to explore Palompon town a bit. I became fascinated by this "floating" native village on stilts in the water. I asked some local kids how to go there, but I think they were too shy to respond. However, as I was walking away a boy crossing the street told me he would take me there.
Turns out he actually lived there, so he knew it well!
His name was Zar, and really was a bright kid. I was so grateful for his impromptu tour, though I was a bit worried that my excess weight might crack the bamboo walkways between houses! he looked worried, too. Haha...I'm sure he never saw somebody my size trying to navigate these elevated paths.
As for the local residents, they could practically walk these precarious planks and pathways with their eyes closed. It's just an everyday part of life.
Anyhow, it was a fascinating place to document, and I appreciated his help very much. I hope somehow he might read this someday.
The next morning I embarked on my incredible overnight camping trip to Kalanggaman Island, but you can find the link for that story at the end of this post:)
The Road To Southern Leyte
The long trip had wiggled loose a small bolt on my tailpipe, and it began to rattle loudly as I rode. Luckily I noticed a huge Yamaha dealer as I passed through Ormoc City, and they replaced it at no cost. Very nice! I was in a hurry to make it all the way to Padre Burgos in the far south, so I didn't have time to see more of Ormoc. As I left town, the road really opened up, and traffic started moving FAST.
Before I knew it, I had passed the beautiful coastline of Inopacan (which I vowed to come back and visit someday), and I arrived in the busy town of Maasin. I know this means "very salty" in Filipino, but I'm not sure if it means the same thing here. I also learned that Maasin is the birthplace of current president, Rodrigo Duterte. I always assumed he was born in Davao!
Sunburnt and exhausted, I had a very late lunch in Maasin and then continued to the Macrohon area, where I took this photo of a tree lined street. At least, I think it was the Macrohon area....in any case, it was an enchanting section of highway.
People in Leyte so far had been incredible warm and friendly, but for some reason, around this small section of road, I got some pretty odd looks from the locals. I couldn't help but wonder if they had a particularly bad experience with a foreigner in the past here. In any case, soon enough, I finally made it to Padre Burgos. The good vibes resumed. The link to my experience @ Peter's Dive Resort can be found at the end of this post...
After 2 amazing days of snorkeling / diving with new friends, I got back on the bike and rode up the coast to Sogod, where I snapped these photos from a bridge over the Hipgasan river (I think?). Again, I was sunburnt and famished (riding for countless hours in the tropical sun really takes a toll on you). I stopped for lunch at a friendly eatery near the Sogod Public Market.
Then I traveled to a remote part of St. Bernard, where there was a crowd of people gathered. Noticing a beautiful mountain landscape above their village, I pulled the bike over to take a picture.
I assumed the crowd was waiting along the road for a bus, but actually there was a massive neighborhood brawl. It sounded really serious, with a lot of screaming and commotion, but the guys next to me were just laughing. They looked at me and said "Don't worry, they're just drunk."
Like an idiot, I had assumed I could make it all the way from Padre Burgos up to Tacloban in one day. This was a pipe dream...while beautiful, the road was far more windy and slow going than I anticipated. I pushed as hard as I could in the fading light, but was ready to eat dinner and pass out by the time I reached Hinundayan.
(If you're curious about Leyte hotels, you can check them out below)
I forgot to mention that this whole trip was pitch black once the sun went down, because the earthquake knocked out power all over Leyte. Riding at night in the Philippines is stressful and dangerous (road hazards). A local pointed me to Julie's Lodge, where I found a very warm and welcoming Julie + caretaker.
Her daughters and sons are working all over the world, such a fascinating story! Very kind people, and definitely an affordable place to stop along the way.
An American Peace Corps volunteer at the dive resort had told me about a fish sanctuary further up the road...I told him I didn't have time to visit it, as I was planning to go all the way to Tacloban that day. Well, here I was with some time...after being forced to break the trip up.
When Mrs. Julie told me I should stop by there on the way too, I considered it a sign. I readied my snorkel and mask, and made my way up the rustic dirt road through the village.
Snorkeling @ Ambao / Calagitan Fish Sanctuary
Wow, I guess this was pretty meant to be! There's not a lot of coral right off the dock where I snorkeled, but there are SO MANY fish. The caretaker was feeding them with bread that I had purchased from him, so I guess that explains the feeding frenzy. Haha.
It's surreal being in the water with all these fish. Similar to experiences I had at Juag Lagoon in Sorsogon, I suppose. If you're wondering, I took these with my Olympus TG-5 (That link is for Lazada, Asia). The Amazon link is HERE.
(Click photos for more info about Calagitan Fish Sanctuary)
You're basically just snorkeling along the edge of a cement wall, but there is a tiny coral growth there I found to photograph. It may be man made, but it's worth it to see all these beautiful fish. Calagitan Fish Sanctuary is located in Ingan, Hinundayan, and has a 10 or 20 peso entry fee (I can't remember, but it was cheap. You can pay 10 pesos for bread to feed them as well.)
The guys there were super nice, we shared fresh-caught octopus and rice for lunch, and I gave them a bit of extra money before continuing north. If you go, don't forget to bring your own mask and snorkel.
Silago / Abuyog Boundary Creek
As I left the coast and started heading up into the mountains, the landscape began to change. When I came across a picturesque bridge with a small waterfall, I had to stop the bike and relax for a while. I really fell in love with this cool, creek canyon.
Just a rocky, babbling brook meandering through a lush jungle of ferns. I could have stayed there all day.
I came down from the mountains and felt the HEAT of the valley. There were some beautiful rice fields in the villages around Abuyog. These look they have been planted fairly recently, but I'm no expert. People here also seemed a bit wary of me, but Leyte Regional Prison is located way out here, so maybe they're just wary of strangers in case they're escapees. Do I look like one? Haha.
After this, the road opened up again, and I practically flew all the way back to Tacloban.
How To Get To Leyte
You can find super cheap Cebu Pacific promo flights to Tacloban or Ormoc City (I paid about $15 each!), but international flights must stop through larger cities like Manila or Cebu. If you fly to Tacloban, you can pick up a motorbike or car near the airport and tour the area yourself. As a photographer, this is the only option for me. I'll never forget this trip.
Again, big thanks to Rhoel @ Haven's Rentals in Tacloban. My trip went off without a hitch because I had a solid, reliable bike. Rhoel's an awesome guy, too. What an incredible experience Leyte was - overall, one of my favorite regions in the Philippines now. I love the history, I love the people, I love the food, and I love the countryside.
That's a lot of love.
Thanks for taking such good care of me, Leyte.
- Nathan Allen
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