by Dov Weinman
Please quit complaining about your coworkers bragging about their off-the-beaten-path visit to a remote island you’ve never even heard of. Finding those getaways isn’t as hard as you think. Here’s one: Nestled in the water between Leyte, Samar, and Masbate lies Biliran — a mountainous, rice-terraced, and waterfall-filled island spot that will make you want to update your travel bucket list.
If you haven’t heard of Biliran, maybe it’s because you see that little island on the map and think it’s a part of Leyte. Up until 1992, you would’ve been right. In 1992, Biliran became one of one of the smallest provinces in the Philippines at just over 200 square miles. Biliran affords plenty of opportunities to get lost in true island life regardless of its small size. With provincial charm and no tourist traps that plague other well-known island destinations, Biliran is one of the country’s best kept secrets, and it’s waiting for anyone adventurous enough to unlock its hidden gems.
To jumpstart your journey, here are 5 things you probably didn’t know about this magical province:
1. Biliran is the waterfall capital of the Philippines.
Outdoor adventure junkies will love Biliran’s legendary waterfalls. The province has such a high concentration of waterfalls (a total of 30!), that the Department of Tourism brands it as the “waterfall capital of the Philippines” in their promotional materials.
Just north of Naval, the Municipality of Almeria is home to some of the island’s more impressive falls. Take a short hike uphill from mountain-based Barangay Caucab and follow the trail to the cliff-sided Bagongbong Falls. While you swim in the refreshing pool, you can stare up at the cliffs to see trees leaning out for the sun and vines cascading down the lush walls.
An even taller waterfall awaits near Barangay Sampao. There, the Ulan-Ulan falls cascades 90 feet down, and you can witness the water break apart and fall from the sky like the rain it’s named after. A bonus for making this trip is the nearby Recoletos Falls, located directly above Ulan-Ulan, which isn’t quite as impressive but flows into a refreshing and swimmable pool with great rocks for relaxing and enjoying the view.
Take the overland track across the middle of the island, and you can witness the more developed and accessible Tinago falls in the Municipality of Caibiran.
Or if you want to rough it out, visit the lesser-known Saob Falls in Cabucgayan, an incredible 85-meter waterfall that’s perfect for canyoneering.
2. It’s a province worth diving for.
You can be one of those divers that all have stories from the same list of popular tourist spots, or you can be one of the first to explore the unknown underwater world of Biliran.
For a truly magical diving experience, travel to the peaceful and picturesque nearby island of Dalutan. Snorkel into a slightly submerged bat cave and listen to the harmless bats coming in and out of the cave, all while being surrounded by massive schools of small fish living in the protection of the rocks.
If you want to get below the surface, you can do so with a dive master as your guide. At Tinkasan Island, you can discover a seldom-visited underwater paradise: an 80-foot wall of soft coral gardens, gorgonians, barrel sponge, and a tremendous amount of wildlife.
Sambawan Island is the more popular of islands among seasoned travelers. However, a trip here should not just stop with a majestic view from the top. Under Sambawan’s waters, you’ll find one of the most biodiverse coral reefs in the region (and plenty of opportunities to fill your friends with envy.)
3. It’s got rolling hills and terraces to rival some of North Luzon’s views.
The island’s dormant volcanoes do more than just provide fertile soils for Biliran’s many farmers. The island is filled with dramatic mountains, including the Tres Marias and Mount Panamao near the northern side. But the island’s interior isn’t just for glances from afar, go inland off the main highway that circumnavigates the island and you’re rewarded with idyllic rural landscapes and beautiful rice terraces (such as in Iyusan, Almeria) that roll down the hillsides toward Biliran’s coastal communities. Catching the sunset from the hillside is a Biliran must- see.
4. It’s home to the Philippines’ quirkiest festival.
The Bagasumbol festival is a celebration of the Biliranon’s valor, to commemorate how its ancestors fought against colonization from the Moros many years ago. What makes it stand out though is the Tsinelas Party that’s held annually alongside it. You heard that right. Every year, townsfolk come out at night to party wearing the mandatory footwear: flip-flops. That means anyone seen to be wearing any other type of footwear can’t come to the party. The festivities run throughout the night, after which a prize money is awarded to the one with the most damaged pair of tsinelas. This festival gives a whole new dimension to getting down and dirty.
5. It’s got pristine, white sand beaches, please.
If you feel like you need more beach time, a short boat trip to the west of the island-volcano Maripipi is the island’s crowning achievement for intrepid travelers. There, you’ll find a string of small islands and white sand that form the cove of Sambawan Island. Seasonally home to nesting turtles, the beaches are as good for relaxing as the surrounding water is for snorkeling and diving.
The white sand beach and fish sanctuary of Higatangan Island should also be a destination on your list. Famous for its shifting sandbar, the island is accessible from Naval, Biliran’s capital and biggest town. When you return to Naval, watch the sunset and enjoy a beer and some juicy barbecue along the port.
How to get there:
While it feels like Biliran could be at the edge of the earth, it’s not that difficult to get to. Fly into Tacloban City and a 3-hour van ride will take you directly to Biliran’s capital town of Naval. From Naval, you can easily find transportation in jeepneys and buses that head to the other parts of the island. Otherwise, take your transportation into your hands by hiring a trike or habal-habal.
Main Photo by Dov Weinman