The Philippines’ secret sanctuary
Facilities are virtually non-existent in Nagsasa Cove, so fresh fish is often cooked on a self-started fire. (Brad Cohen)
The Philippines has a secret. Hidden on the west coast of Luzon, Nagsasa Cove is a respite from the chaos of Manila and an enclave of calm amid the rough waters of the South China Sea.
You are not likely to find Nagsasa in any guidebook. Ask anyone in Manila -- or even anyone outside of the local province of Zambales -- and they will probably say you are mistaken, that no such place exists. Twenty years ago, they would have been right.
Nagsasa Cove was reportedly formed when Mt Pinatubo erupted in 1991. Pine seeds swept into Zambales, giving birth to an alien nation of evergreen trees on a tropical beach more likely to host a string of palms. Now, the nearly still waters of Nagasa Cove reflect the surrounding mountains, and nearby waterfalls feed the river at the back of the beach. Unlike the crowded sands of more popular Luzon beaches like Puerto Galera, Nagasa is usually empty. It is hard to believe that such a beautiful place was borne from such a violent eruption.
In recent years, whispers of Nagsasa Cove’s existence have started to grow louder. Those who have fallen victim to its enchantment have shared the secret that is too good to be kept that way, and Filipino bloggers have begun spreading the word about Luzon’s next great off-the-beaten path destination. But unless you already happen to be in Zambales, it is no easy trek to Nagsasa, which may help the sanctuary retain its relative obscurity.
Coming from Manila, the journey begins with a pleasant three to four hour bus ride to the town of San Antonio. The following 20-minute "tricycle" ride to Barangay San Miguel or Pundaquit is less so. Travellers find themselves squished into a partially enclosed motorcycle sidecar that is barely big enough for one person. Supplies and luggage that do not fit on the roof of the sidecar sit on the floor, encroaching on the already-limited leg room inside. The final hour-and-a-half is by banca, a small motorized canoe that uses wing-like lateral floats that extend a few meters from the boat to help navigate choppy waters. Even with the assistance of the floats, the rough sea can make it a trying trip for those with no sea legs.
Adventurers are rewarded with a mostly-empty beach to soak in the sun and short hikes to nearby waterfalls. At the back of a small fishing village -- home to Nagsasa's few inhabitants – the trail passes through a tall pine forest and winds along the river where local women do their laundry. Water cascades down the side of the mountain, providing hikers with a refreshingly icy plunge into the swimming hole below.
As the day fades away, the sun enters a slow dance with the mountains, reflecting an ever-changing kaleidoscope of hues in the water below before finally creeping behind the peaks.
Self-provided tents or hammocks are the most luxurious sleeping options; the other choice is spending a night on the sand.
Facilities are non-existent save a small shop for basic supplies like firewood, so make sure to stock up on food and drinks in San Antonio. Fresh fish and s´mores can be cooked on a self-started fire, and music is generally a capella or from a guitar, if you bring one.
Not everyone appreciates the nuances of beach camping — sand adds a bit of crunch to succulent Zambales mangoes and hot showers are replaced with a dip in the brisk river at the back of the beach — but if you like the idea of taking a mid-day nap on the beach, under a pine tree canopy, listening to a soundtrack of the wind, then go before it is too late. The secret is now out.