A photographer from the San Jose Tourism Office tries to capture a panoramic view of the mangrove forest on Ilin Island. (Photo by Joyce Ann L. Rocamora)

OCCIDENTAL MINDORO — Occidental Mindoro offers more than its awe-inspiring views of paddy fields and mountain ranges. With unspoiled white beaches, underwater paradise, and other captivating sights, the province is a promising hub for sustainable tourism.

Occidental Mindoro is one of two provinces of Mindoro island. San Jose was made the provisional capital of Occidental until Jan. 1, 1951, when the seat of government was transferred to Mamburao.

Occidental Mindoro, which is the Southern Tagalog region’s second leading rice producer, is composed of 11 municipalities.

In many of these municipalities, agricultural products are not the only things offered. There is also a myriad of natural attractions that remain undiscovered by many, such as Sablayan and San Jose.


San Jose, usually known as a transit point to Coron, is more than a stop for tourists seeking the idyllic waters and otherworldly rock formations of Palawan.

Beaches and islands rimmed with golden to cream-colored sand coasts abound, plus there's a site for pilgrimage that Catholics would find worthy for a long boat ride. 

An oarsman steers the boat from rocks, as it docks at the sandy coast of Manadi White Island, off the coast of San Jose mainland. (Photo by Nestor Dionido, DOT)

There is the Manadi Island, locally known as White Island, fringed with beached corals and papaya whip-colored sands. Manadi is perfect for those seeking solitude and peace. Since walking in this tiny islet is like walking around the block, a less-than-10-minute stroll will allow one to marvel and tour the whole island.

A small, confined village, not far from Manadi, has two Catholic structures— a newly-built church by a top real estate company, and the other, a chapel that is believed to be miraculous.

Germalyn Pandiño, the Santissima Trinidad Church secretariat, said devotees always come back to Ilin Island to give thanks. "Their prayers here in the Holy Trinity do come true. All those who promise to come back do so," she said.

An example of this was a mother from Ligaya, Sablayan, whose three-year-old child was presumed dead some years ago.

"She herself said her child was already dead, with only a portion of her upper body warm. Then there's a faith healer who told her to visit Ilin and get water from its church," Pandiño narrated. 

The famed image of three personas at the altar of Santissima Trinidad Church in Ilin Island, San Jose, Occidental Mindoro. (Photo by Nestor Dionido, DOT)

"So, they decided to rent a boat from Ligaya. Coming back home, the mother rubbed her child with a cloth poured with water she got from the island. Based on her account, the child woke up, and is now living well," she added. There are similar accounts, Pandiño said, but another tale of the chapel makes a remarkable backdrop to its origins -- the story behind the image hung on its main altar.

Before the chapel was renovated by healing priest Fr. Fernando Suarez, the Santissima Trinidad Church was originally made of wood, built by the Spaniards in 1843. During that era, there was said to be a couple whose main source of living was "pagbabaklad" or the use of corrals to catch fish.

Every morning, the fisherman would check if he caught some. Days passed, and he would only get a piece of wood floating inside his fish trap. He threw it repeatedly, but to no avail, the slab would just drift back to his pen.

Frustrated, the fisherman decided to bring it back to his wife to use it as a chopping board. While mincing on it, locals with the same recollection of the lore said, "blood flowed out and revealed an image of three persons."

There is no formal or official record as to how it arrived in Barangay Iling Proper, but the legend behind the three personas' image shares the plot with Our Lady of Caysasay's arrival in Batangas, whose image was fished out of the Pansipit River in Taal.

According to Pandiño, devotees often inundate the village during Holy Week, Christmas, and when Fr. Suarez would hold a mass in the church.

Alighting from Barangay Iling Proper's pier, a unique experience for tourists on their way to their pump boat is a walk on its mudflat during low-tide, as they await a small banca that would transfer them to the motorized vessel.

From Barangay Iling Proper, tourists can spend their afternoon at the Inasakan Beach in Sitio Maniraga, still in Ilin Island, for lunch, and a serene time with its fine ivory-white sands.

San Jose Mayor Romulo Festin said the town plans to engage further with the Department of Tourism and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in developing the province to attract more tourists while adhering to the government's goal of establishing a sustainable tourism industry in the country. 

Visitors arriving at the Inasakan Beach in Ilin proper. (Photo by Nestor Dionido, DOT)

"What I plan is to have convergence, to implement best practices, and craft good policies for the province," he told visiting reporters.

"In fairness to San Jose, we are already implementing these best practices towards sustainable tourism," he said. To date, the San Jose government is eyeing the construction of a visitor center in the area. 


About an hour and a half travel time from San Jose via van, one would arrive at the town, where the waves meet.

Sablayan in Occidental Mindoro is a literal label from the Visayan term "sablay," meaning "wave convergence".

Seven years ago, with few developments in place, Sablayan only garnered 17,892 foreign and domestic tourists. But in 2017, it grew more than 300 percent with 64,778 visitors. Tourists coming in for Apo Reef alone generated PHP7.79 million in income to the municipality last year. The existing carrying capacity of the island is 105 visitors a day.

The Apo Reef Natural Park can be considered Sablayan's most prominent tourist destination. But more than that, the town is radiant with a multitude of activities that won't fit in a day-tour schedule. 

A visitor walking barefoot on the fine sands of Pandan Grande Island.  Overlooking from the island is the Sablayan mainland. (Photo by Teddy Pelaez)

Pandan Grande Island

The secluded Pandan Grande Island is one good setting for those who want a retreat from the urban noise. The island, filled with vegetation teeming with colorful tropical birds, is fringed with cream-colored sands like the white beaches of San Jose.

The resort offers a wide range of activities from scuba diving, snorkeling, and kayaking.

From the zipline drop-off point of the Parola Park, the Pandan Grande Island is just a 20-minute boat ride. Here, it might be best to rent a glass-bottom boat onto the resort for a peek at the thriving ecosystem underwater.

Apo Reef Natural Park

In Sablayan's gem, whether you are a certified diver or a beginner who can only swim on a three-feet pool or snorkeling for the first time, wading through the waters of Apo Reef Natural Park would always be a unique experience.

Apo's 16,000-hectare reef area is the largest atoll-like reef in Asia and is second to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

According to the park's superintendent, Celso Almazen, it is a favorite nesting ground for hawksbill and green sea turtles.

The park is unique in its own sense, nestling Asia's oldest Pagatpat tree within its 11-hectare mangrove forest in the main island.

The low-tide elevation Tinangkapan and the 5-hectare Binanggaan high-tide elevation are both nursery grounds for various marine species, such as reef sharks and the poisonous walo-walo (sea snake). 

Blogger Erica Poyauan strikes a pose at the century-old lighthouse at the Apo Reef Natural Park (Photo by Nestor Dionido, DOT)

Just recently, the Napoleon Wrasse, the largest reef fish and the biggest of the wrasse family, has been declared Apo Reef Natural Park's flagship fish.

"If you would notice, Apo Island's sand is quite pinkish, not off-white, that's because of the wrasses. Since they feed on corals when they excrete waste, those get mixed with other elements in the sea and turn into sand," Almazen said. 

Attractions at the Apo Reef Natural Park may be few, but a day or two on the island won't suffice. Aside from diving, swimming, and snorkeling, visitors can climb its century-old lighthouse.

Historically, this light house is significant, said Almazen. "That was originally built in 1905. It reminds us of the history that way, way before, there were settlers who lived here and already appreciated the beauty of Apo," he said.

Admiringly, the Sablayan Tourism Office is maintaining the serenity of the place by balancing its promotion.

Bookings for Apo Reef Natural Park, via both tour operators and walk-ins, are all monitored by the office.

From Sablayan mainland, one may experience this diving mecca for an average budget of PHP2,500 to PHP3,500 if part of a group of 10.

Based on the town's standard rates, a two-way boat ride from the mainland to the reefs is about PHP8,000 (10 pax), and an additional PHP500 if they opt to spend the night at the Apo Reef Natural Park.

The entrance fee and environmental fee for each local tourist is PHP390, and PHP 780 for each foreign visitor.

Included in a tourist's budget must be the tour guide fee of PHP1,000, snorkeling gear at PHP150, and the rent for a tent at PHP300 (3 pax), in case of an overnight stay.

Sablayan Mayor Eduardo Gadiano said the municipality is committed to develop more access roads in the town, adding there's also a plan to construct an airport in Sablayan. 

Kalabasib eating grass inside his custom-made feedstall. (Photo by Joyce Ann L. Rocamora) 

With the promising tourism industry in the area and, at the same time, learning from the fate of Boracay, Gadiano said the local government "adheres first and foremost to conservation and protection."

"In Apo Reef alone, we already implemented a carrying capacity way before. We don't want to reach the point where we'll suffer the same fate as Boracay," he said. 


Tamaraw Gene Pool Farm

As the last leg for one's Occidental Mindoro tour, it is good to spend time with Mindoro's icon animal -- the Tamaraw. Among others, visiting the last of its kin bred in captivity would raise one's awareness that there are only a few hundreds of them left in the wild.

In 2018, Bubalus Mindorensis’ count in Mindoro grew to 523, still less than what one would have imagined.

Kalibasib, short for Kalikasang Bagong Sibol, is the only Tamaraw breathing in the Tamaraw Gene Pool Park, after his parents Charlie and Mimi died of old age.

Kalibasib is already 19 years old. While already near 25, the average life span of a wild dwarf buffalo, Kalibasib can still chase and gore a person, his caretaker, Oni Ordo, said.

Although housed within a half-hectare fenced area at the gene pool farm in Rizal, Occidental Mindoro, Kalibasib lives in conditions like the way Tamaraws would sprawl in the wild.

The farm now serves as a park for tourists and locals after it stopped the captive breeding program.

Summer, of course, is the optimum time to visit the beaches and scattered underwater paradise of Occidental Mindoro. But in November this year, not to be missed is the huge Mimaropa Festival that will be hosted in Mamburao, the provincial capital. (PNA)