Situated between the popular destinations of Bantayan and Malapascua off the northernmost coast of Cebu, Kinatarcan (also spelled Kinatarkan) — formerly known as Guintacan — is a long-overlooked, roughhewn limestone island untouched by tourism overdevelopment.
Divided into three barangays (Langub, Hagdan and Kinatarcan), the island is within the political jurisdiction of Santa Fe, one of the three municipalities centered on Bantayan island. It is, however, more easily reached by daily pump boats from Daanbantayan on mainland Cebu. Aside from limited boat transfers, spotty mobile signal and the total absence of large resorts or restaurants (for now) truly make Kinatarcan an unplugged escape for adventurous travelers. With a land area of only 13 square kilometers, the top sights can be explored in a single day by habal-habal, however, it’s worth spending a few days on the island to really soak in the laid-back atmosphere.
Visitors are rewarded with dramatic seascapes sculpted for eons by wind and water that call to mind the frontier isles of Batanes. Northern Cebu, after all, is frequented by typhoons. Kinatarcan was totally devastated when one of the world’s most powerful cyclones, Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), ripped across central Philippines in 2013. Miraculously, there were no casualties on the island. Six years later, in the Christmas of 2019, Typhoon Phanfone (Ursula) hit the island.
Over the years, the residents have slowly rebuilt their communities. In 2017, the island garnered more attention with the support of the late Filipino environmentalist and philanthropist Gina Lopez (1953-2019) who championed its sustainable development as an eco-tourism and wellness destination, as featured in her travel and lifestyle show G Diaries.
The most visited tourist attraction is Laaw Lagoon & Cove (Brgy. Hagdan, entrance fee: PHP 50 per person) on the northeast coast, where latô (edible seaweed) paints a shallow lagoon emerald green and limestone promontories overlook a small cove where – scrambling down some rocks and through a large crack – one can swim or snorkel.
Locals believe that nature spirits congregate in this area, which was rarely visited outside Holy Week until developed for tourism in recent years. Instead of supernatural beings, I spotted several wild birds during our visit, including a collared kingfisher at the lagoon, and a critically endangered Christmas Island frigatebird (Fregata andrewsi) soaring above the cove!
This tourist spot is best visited around midday when the waters become luminous under full sun, or during high tide when the lagoon fills up with more water. Swimming at the lagoon, however, is no longer allowed.
(During low season, the caretaker may not be at the entrance of Laaw Lagoon. Visitors need to drop by the barangay hall or caretaker’s home in Hagdan to pay the entrance fee and borrow the gate key.)
Another stunning seascape can be visited on the other side of the island. A short walk through thickets leads to Byaring Cliff (Brgy. Hagdan), overlooking rock formations built from fallen boulders. Don’t simply settle for the views from above. It’s definitely worth climbing down the steep, rather precarious steps to the shoreline for a lovely swim beneath the carved cliffs and around the formations.
Four beautiful white-sand beaches stretch between seaside cliffs around the island. Pasil Beach (Brgy. Langub) is the busiest, being the arrival point of most travelers to the island. Here, one can cool off and pamper themselves at D’Clam Cave (entrance fee: PHP 50 per person), a small underground saltwater pool, discovered when a local family was digging for a well.
Accessed by a manmade tunnel sheltered by a hut, the unique site features giant clam (Tridacna spp.) fossils (hence the cave’s name) and mineral-rich clay that visitors can apply on their skin as a mud mask. The two bivalves preserved on the cave wall looks like two distinct species, T. gigas and the smaller T. squamosa.
West of Pasil Beach, Langub Beach (Brgy. Langub) harbors a fishing settlement, where locals sun-dry talho (aka karaho or shortfin saury) and tuloy (aka tamban or herring) to make bulád (dried fish) — a specialty of northern Cebu that makes for the perfect pasalubong to bring home from the island.
South of Laaw Lagoon & Cove is Hagdan Beach (Brgy. Hagdan), a scenic beach reached by cliffside stairways on either end, which gave the barangay its name. Bitoon Beach (Brgy. Kinatarcan), on the other hand, wasn’t named after the Cebuano word for “star” but for the bitoon tree (sea poison tree, Barringtonia asiatica) that grows in the area. This west-facing shore is a great spot to watch the sunset over the Visayas Sea, especially from the rocky outcrops of Forest Beach Guesthouse (entrance fee: PHP 20 per person for non-guests).
How to Get There
From Cebu City: take a bus from the North Bus Terminal (SM Cebu City) bound for Daanbantayan (4 hours, PHP 190, non-AC). One must depart from the city before 7:00 am to catch the daily boats bound for Kinatarcan.
From the Daanbantayan Bus Terminal, located next to the public market, take a tricycle to Mahayahay Port (PHP 15). Public pump boats from Kinatarcan island arrive at around 9:00 am, and depart between 11:00 to 12:00 pm on a daily basis (PHP 50 per person). There are boats to Pasil Beach (Langub), where most accommodation are located, and Hagdan Beach, near Laaw Lagoon. The sea crossing takes at least 45 minutes.
From Bantayan Island: there are boats that ply between Santa Fe and Kinatarcan (Bitoon Beach) with the same schedule as aforementioned. There are daily trips, except on Saturdays (PHP 120 per person, 90 minutes). Pump boats may also be chartered for private transfers.
IMPORTANT: There are no ATMs on the island. Bring enough cash for your entire stay. For last-minute withdrawals, go to Landbank or Prince Hypermart (Chinabank ATM) in Daanbantayan.
Where to Stay
A few basic, family-run guesthouses and campsites can be found along Pasil Beach. Don’t expect big resorts with full amenities on the island.
We highly recommend, however, staying at Forest Beach Guesthouse (aka Mantao Guesthouse; contact Berlito Mantao – +63 9203804640) at the southern end of Bitoon Beach (Brgy. Kinatarcan), only 3 km from Pasil Beach. They have a simple concrete bungalow with a porch. Inside, four fan rooms can accommodate up to 7 persons each (PHP 300 per person a night). Shared toilet and shower rooms are segregated for male and female guests. Towels are provided. The common area has a sofa set, dining table, and kitchenette with kitchenware, butane stove, rice cooker and refrigerator (out of order during our visit), which may be used by guests free of charge. Potable water for drinking and cooking may be supplied at PHP 50 for a 20-liter container.
Across the road from the guesthouse is the forested seaside property atop some coral stone outcrops, overlooking Bitoon Beach. It’s an excellent spot to swim, relish the sea breeze on a hammock, grill seafood over charcoal, and watch the sunset at the end of the day.
Where to Eat
As of January 2022, there are no restaurants on the island, except for Skyler’s Refreshments, a simple food shack with a few outdoor tables at Pasil Beach, serving milk tea, burgers, hotdogs and breakfast plates. (Not all of the items on their menu, however, are always available.) The establishment has a pay-per-use Piso WiFi vendo machine. There’s a local eatery at the village center of Hagdan, but it isn’t regularly open, especially on weekends.
Tourists need to cook their own food, or ask guesthouse owners to prepare meals. Forest Beach Guesthouse has a shared kitchenette for the convenience of their guests. Sari-sari stores around the island sell canned goods, vegetables, rice, seasoning, cooking oil, and other basic ingredients. Talho fish, both dried and fresh, can be bought at Langub Beach — it’s an island specialty! There are more shopping options at Daanbantayan Public Market, next to the bus terminal, so don’t forget to drop by to shop for ingredients before departing for Kinatarcan.
Habal-habal (motorcycle taxi) is the primary means of transportation to get around the island. Short rides between villages are PHP 20 to 50 per person, depending on your haggling skills.
Forest Beach Guesthouse offers guided motorcycle tours for only PHP 250 per person (for 2-3 hours). For a more comfortable ride, groups may rent a pump boat or multicab (light truck) to explore the island (PHP 250 per person, minimum of four).
For those looking for a self-drive option, a few semi-automatic (clutchless manual) motorbikes are available for rent at Pasil Beach. Look for Marlon (+63 9317868283), or ask around Skyler’s Refreshments. No helmets are provided. Gasoline is sold by the roadside in soda bottles at PHP 70 per liter. Alternatively, you can bring your motorbike from the mainland via public pump boat (PHP 250 per motorcycle, inclusive of driver).
Drive carefully as the narrow concrete roads are unfinished (as of the time of writing), and some tourist attractions can only be directly accessed via rough trails. Watch out for children, pets, and livestock along the roads. It’s easy to get lost when finding your way to the cliffside tourist spots as there are no signs, but locals are helpful enough to point the right way.