PHILIPPINES. Camiguin Island - Volcanoes, jungle and sunken graves
Flying into Camiguin feels a lot like flying into Jurassic Park - if Jurassic Park were real with rumbling volcanoes, a sunken city and fewer visitors. This tiny island soars out of the Bohol Sea in dramatic form, its more than 20 jungle clad peaks belying its tumultuous geological history which caused land to rise and a whole town to sink down to the sea floor. Camiguin is colloquially known as "the island borne of fire" and that's pretty apt. The island is home to seven volcanoes, two of which, Mount Hibok-Hibok and Mount Vulcan are still active, and loom menacingly from every corner. Camiguin's diminuitive size of just 238sq km means this little patch of land has more volcanoes per sq km than anywhere else on earth. That's more volcanic action than Hawaii.
I heard about Camiguin from a fellow traveller while staying on nearby Siquijor, she whispered its name in hushed tones over lunch. And she was right to be secretive - Camiguin's peacefulness is its biggest asset, and there are several reasons why it remains pretty much off the Filipino island trail. Its remote location once meant getting there was a bit of a schlep (not so now with direct flights from Manila) and its proximity to conflict heavy Mindanao which has been under marshal law for a number of years has also put people off. But maybe it was the constant possibility of being buried under lava which troubled people the most. Mount Hibok-Hibok is the scenic yet volatile giant which poses the biggest threat to the island's nearly 90,000 residents. Its last eruption in 1951 killed more than 500 people and led to the formation of the Philippines' first government funded volcano monitoring service, set up in an effort to prevent further disasters here and elsewhere.
But the island's most spectacular show of geological might occurred way back in 1871. The youngest volcano, Mount Vulcan, rose up causing huge swathes of land to sink and fall into the waves, burying terrified residents under flaming lava and pyroclastic flows of deadly gases and debris. One of the best sites on the island to get an idea of the extent of the devastation is at the Old Church Ruins, an atmospheric place on a cliff above the ocean. The moss covered walls are all that remain of a large Spanish church complex buried under lava and rocks during Vulcan's formation, claiming the lives of many who remain entombed under the earth. Just the top level of the structure can be seen now and it's an eerie feeling to know so many lay dead just under your feet.
The town of Bonbon was completely obliterated and as the land sank, so too did the town's cemetery which was buried deep under the sea bed, its site now marked by a large white cross in the waves. The only evidence of its original existence is a stone cross lying barnacled and decaying on the sea bed (which makes for a very cool snorkelling trip). Corals and reef fish mostly occupy the space where the dead once lay, which seems a rather fitting legacy for such a sad event.
I spent my week exploring Camiguin's natural wonders - visiting hot and cold springs and enquiring about (but as usual never doing) some hiking - the climb up Mount Hibok-Hibok is popular but tough. It also has some of the most beautiful waterfalls I've seen. Tuasan Falls in particular would have had Steven Spielberg jumping for joy when he was dreaming up the environs of Jurassic Park. Located deep in the interior its freezing waters plunge into a deep pool surrounded by mossy rocks, ferns and twisting jungle vines, and there wasn't another soul there when I visited. White Island is a stunning sandbar situated just offshore and deserves a visit, as does paradisical Mantigue Island, which cost me just $4 to reach and had beaches to rival Boracay.
Camiguin's charm lies altogether in its dramatic natural beauty and exploring this remote little outpost was an absolute pleasure. If you're searching for that Nirvanic idea of an Asian island that existed before the backpacker trail was even a thing, then Camiguin is a good place to start.
How to do it: Fly direct with Skyjet from Manila, or via Cebu with Cebu Pacific
Where to stay: Casa Roca's verandah room is the best room on the island http://www.casarocacamiguin.com/index.html
Don't miss: The road that runs through the middle of the island, starting at the turnoff for Tuasan Falls finishing near the capital, Mambajao. Expect epic views, waterfalls and jungle hikes.