Within a few hours of Manila, yet worlds away, Mindoro remains undeveloped even by Philippine provincial standards. Much of the island is wild and rugged, with some near-impenetrable hinterlands and an often desolate coastline of wide bays and basic fishing villges. The island, seventh largest in the archipelago, is divided lengthways into two provinces, Mindoro Occidental and Mindoro Oriental; the latter is the more developed and visited. Most travellers head this way only for the beaches, scuba diving and nightlife around the picturesque town of Puerto Galera on Mindoro Oriental’s northern coast, a short ferry trip from Batangas, but there is much more to Mindoro than this. Few people, Filipinos included, realize that the island is home to several areas of outstanding natural beauty, all protected to some degree by local or international decree. As well as the incredible marine environments of Puerta Galera, and the world-class Apo Reef on the west coast, Mindoro’s interior offers the chance to experience genuine Mangyan culture, visit pristine wilderness, and maybe see endangered species such as the Mindoro dwarf buffalo, the tamaraw at the Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park.
Aside from a few intrepid wildlife enthusiasts and divers around Sablayan, Mindoro Occidental remains wonderfully undiscovered, and travellers with flexible travel plans and a penchant for bumpy jeepney rides will have their efforts rewarded with wild jungly mountains, remote beaches, and maybe meeting a few of the local Mangyan people along the way.
San José on the southwest coast has the only functioning airport on Mindoro and makes a logical starting point for trips north to the Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park, home to the tamaraw, a dwarf buffalo endemic to Mindoro and in acute danger of extinction. Further north, the fishing town of Sablayan is the jumping-off point for a sight no scuba diver should miss, the Apo Reef Marine Natural Park, a vast reef complex offering some of the best diving in the world. As well as organizing a trip from Sablayan, you can also do so in advance at a dive shop in Manila or Busuanga. Sablayan is also a base for a visit to Mounts Iglit-Baco or the Sablayan Watershed Forest Reserve, a lowland forest with beautiful Lake Libao at its centre. The northwest of the island is little visited, though there are some unspoilt beaches around the town of Mamburao, the low-key capital of Mindoro Occidental.
Lying about 30km off the west coast of Mindoro, Apo Reef stretches 26km from north to south and 20km east to west, making it a significant marine environment. There are two main atolls separated by deep channels and a number of shallow lagoons with beautiful white sandy bottoms. Only in three places does the coral rise above the sea’s surface, creating the islands of Cayos de Bajo, Binangaan and Apo. The largest of these, Apo, is home to a ranger station and a lighthouse. The diving is really something special, with sightings of sharks (even hammerheads), barracuda, tuna and turtles fairly common. Most of the Philippines’ 450 species of coral are here, from tiny bubble corals to huge gorgonian sea fans and brain corals, along with hundreds of species of smaller reef fishes such as angelfish, batfish, surgeonfish and jacks.
If you’re not staying at the Pandan Island Resort, you can head to the reef on one of the liveaboard trips offered by many dive operators in Coron Town (in Busuanga) or Manila. Alternatively the Sablayan Eco-Tourism Office can organize a 10-person boat out to the reef for P6500. However you get here, to snorkel on the reef you need to pay a fee of P350, or P1300 to dive.
The Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park is dominated by the twin peaks of Mount Baco (2488m) and Mount Iglit (2364m), which offer some challenging climbs; it can take up to two days to reach the peak of Mount Iglit, so these climbs are tough and not to be underestimated. Vegetation is so dense there have been no officially recorded ascents of Mount Baco. This is also a New People’s Army (NPA) area and while there have been no notable events involving tourists, it’s worth asking around for the latest information.
There are also a number of more leisurely treks through the foothills to areas in which you are most likely to see the endangered tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis), a dwarf bovine of which fewer than two hundred exist. The tamaraw, whose horns grow straight upwards in a distinctive “V” formation, has fallen victim to hunting, disease and deforestation, and to create more awareness of its plight there is talk of designating it the country’s national animal. Apart from the tamaraw, the park is also prime habitat for the Philippine deer, wild pigs and other endemic species such as the Mindoro scops owl and the Mindoro imperial pigeon.
To visit the park, you’ll first have to secure a permit (P50) and arrange a guide (P1000 for three days), either in San José at the Protected Area Office or the Sablayan Eco-Tourism Office. Both of these offices can help put together all of the logistics for your trip, including camping options, and can also advise on visits to the “Gene Pool”, a small laboratory where scientists are trying to breed the tamaraw in captivity. Reaching the park by public transport from Sablayan means taking one of the regular buses or jeepneys south along the coastal road to the barangay of Popoy, then a jeepney up the bumpy and rutted track to the park itself.
Idyllic North Pandan Island (P150 entrance fee), ringed by a halo of fine white sand, coral reefs and coconut palms, lies two kilometres off the west coast of Mindoro. In 1994 a sanctuary was established around the eastern half of the island so the marine life is exceptional; with a mask and snorkel you can see big grouper, all sorts of coral fishes, even the occasional turtle.
If you want to visit the island it’s easy to arrange a boat to Pandan (20min; P600 return for a boat which can hold 15 passengers) from the Sablayan Eco-Tourism Office. You’ll need to pay a P75 fee to set foot on the island.
The island is the site of the well-run Pandan Island Resort (t0919/305-7821, wwww.pandan.com), a back-to-nature private hideaway developed by a French adventurer who discovered it in 1986. There are four types of accommodation at the resort: budget rooms (P500–999) standard double bungalows (P1500–1999), larger bungalows for four (P2000–2499), and family houses for up to six (P500–999). During the diving season (Nov–May) the island is so popular that all rooms are often taken, so it’s important to book in advance. Guests are required to take at least one buffet meal at the resort restaurant every day, and this is no bad thing: the chef dishes up excellent European and Filipino cuisine (try the tangy fish salad in vinegar) and the beach bar serves some unforgettable tropical cocktails.
On most days the resort’s scuba-diving centre organizes day-trips to Apo Reef, and longer overnight safaris both to Apo and to Busuanga off northern Palawan if there are enough passengers. Even if you don’t dive, there’s plenty to keep you occupied on and around the island itself, including kayaking, jungle treks, windsurfing and sailing.
More accessible and developed than its poorer neighbour across the mountains, most visitors head to Mindoro Oriental to dive in the marine reserve at Puerto Galera, in the north of the province. Nearby Mount Malasimbo is also protected because of the biodiversity of its thickly jungled slopes. To the east of Puerto Galera, near the port of Calapan, is Mount Halcon, at 2587m, Mindoro’s tallest peak and a difficult climb even for experienced mountaineers, although it is currently off-limits. The south of the island is less populated than the north, with few tourists making it as far as Roxas on the southeast coast, aside from to take one of the regular boats to Caticlan (for Boracay).
Set in a pretty cove, Sabang is jam-packed with hotels, restaurants and dive schools, however, the beach itself is nothing special, and not great for swimming, while the very visible girlie bar scene comes as a shock to many visitors. If you arrive here by bangka from Batangas City, you’ll be dropped in front of At-Cans, a little east of the main road.
At the Filipino Travel Centre office (t043/287-3108) on the main road opposite the Tropicana Castle Dive Resort in Sabang, staff can offer information as well as book local day-trips and plane and ferry tickets. Almost next door, GPLP Tours (t0927/326-0535) runs an extensive range of local trips to waterfalls, Mangyan villages and even as far as Taal Volcano. Just across the road you can change currency at the Western Union, and around the corner from that is a small supermarket. There are a few small internet cafés dotted along the main alley through Sabang, and most hotels and resorts have wi-fi. For a doctor, head for the 24-hour Medical Clinic and Diagnostic Centre (t043/287-3156) 100m up the alley across from the Tropicana Castle.
Accommodation choices in Sabang range from cheaper cottages in small hotels to more expensive dive resort options. Generally speaking the accommodation to the west of the main road, which is closer to the nightlife, is pricier than that to the quieter east. Most of the dive resorts have their own bars where divers tend to congregate – Big Apple Sports Bar and Captain Gregg’s are popular spots. If you’re feeling more adventurous, swim out to one of the floating bars on the main Sabang beach. Outside of the resorts and listings below, Sabang’s night scene is dominated by the go-go bars, and gets seedier as the night progresses.
It’s estimated that there are around 100,000 of Mindoro’s original inhabitants, the Mangyan left on the island, their way of life not much changed since they fought against the invading Spanish in the sixteenth century. With little role in the mainstream Philippine economy, they subsist through slash-and-burn farming, a practice the elders insist on retaining as part of their culture, despite the destruction it causes to forests.
You may well see Mangyan as you travel around the island, often wearing only a loincloth and machete and carrying produce for market, but if you want to actually visit them in their villages, it‘s best to go with a guide who can act as an interpreter. You can break the ice with a few treats such as cigarettes, sweets and matches, but if you want to take photographs, make sure you have their permission. Treks to Mangyan villages are possible in several parts of the island.