The province of Mindoro Occidental is more isolated and less developed than its neighbour to the east; in most places you’re as likely to be taken for a missionary as a traveller. Most tourists make a beeline for Sablayan, the entry point for the diving mecca of Apo Reef.
Calapan, the bustling administrative capital of Mindoro Oriental, is a feeder port for Batangas, Luzon and – as far as most tourists are concerned – one of the stops on the bus-boat route between Manila and Boracay. It is also a good base for hiking formidable Mt Halcon and for getting to know a little about Mangyan culture.
The southernmost town in Mindoro Occidental, San José has a cluster of three pretty islands – White, Ambulong and Ilin – just off-shore. It’s notable for having an airport, and its position as a transport hub is what brings most travellers through. It’s also the place to restock on cash from the only ATMs in Mindoro Occidental.
A welcome sight after the long journey from either the north or the south, rural and friendly Sablayan sits astride the Bagong Sabang River. It has a lively market and makes a good base for several worthwhile terrestrial excursions. However, the main attraction here is Apo Reef, the country’s best dive site not named Tubbataha, less than two hours offshore.
Mt Iglit-Baco National Park
Travellers who trek to this remote area may be rewarded with a sighting of the elusive wild tamaraw, the Philippines’ endangered native buffalo. The national park is made up of sweeps of grassland (the favoured habitat of the tamaraw), Mangyan slash-and-burn areas, and forested ridges.
This unassuming coastal town is surrounded by lost coves and practically uninhabited islands ripe for exploring. Larry at South Drive Restobar organises island-hopping trips, rents out motorbikes (per day P500) and has a car for hire. Many Mangyans come to town on market days (Tuesdays and Saturdays). There is no ATM in Bulalacao.
Near Mansalay, a small coastal township 18km south of Roxas, you’ll encounter a gorgeous sweep of white-sand beach and clean, calm water at Buktot. Behind the caretakers’ house, a small green enclosure contains three pretty and basic bamboo overnight cottages (per night P350); there are beds, linen and toilets, but no screens or electricity.
About 40km north of San José, Calintaan is a potential launch point for both Mt Iglit-Baco National Park and Apo Reef. You could depart from Manila on an early-morning flight and be diving at Apo Reef the same morning out of Swiss-owned Apo Reef Club, which has a speed boat that can get you out to the reef in just one hour.
Sablayan Prison Farm
A wonderfully quirky experience, the Sablayan Prison Farm offers much more than a chance to meet-and-greet prisoners in their element. There are also a host of prisoner-guided excursions on offer in the lush forests around the farm, and you can even sleep out here within earshot of snoring prisoners in the prison guesthouse.