Leyte: Hidden Beauty Revealed

rock formations at Mahaba Island

In times past we've always associated Leyte with the World War 2 landing site of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. And perhaps the San Juanico Bridge which is still the longest bridge spanning a body of sea water in the Philippines. Besides those there was nothing about the island that we could associate with tourism, particularly attractive natural destinations. Fast forward several years later and we realized how much we have overlooked this province's beauty.

Thanks to intrepid travel adventurers and efforts by the local tourism industry, a host of previously hidden natural spots are gradually being revealed to the outside world. We've visited Tacloban City a few times in the past 15 years as part of our work but it has only been in the last 2-3 years that we intentionally visited tourist destinations in Leyte and the adjoining province of Biliran.

Kalanggaman Island

With its crystal clear waters, white powdery sand and long, snaking sandbar, this tropical beauty off the town of Palompon was largely unknown to the outside world until in 2013 a passing cruise ship – the MV Europa Cruise Line – dropped off some 400 passengers to tour the island. Since then it has been attracting an increasing number of local and foreign tourists eager to sample the island's beauty. Kalanggaman's centerpiece is its long, snaking sandbar, often acknowledged as one of the best in the whole country.

view of Kalanggaman Island in Palompon, Leyte from an approaching boat
Approaching Kalanggaman Island

Despite the devastation wrought by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013, the island has rapidly recovered and continues to attract visitors. Before Yolanda, there were actually two long sandbars but the huge waves generated by the typhoon wiped out one. (Scientists say that the sandbar could easily be recreated by nature in a few years.) The remaining sandbar with its long, snaking appearance is amazing enough, however. There are no fancy accommodations, restaurants or shops on the island. With just a few huts to provide transient shelter to visitors, the island has remained relatively pristine, helped along by the Palompon local government tourism office's efforts to preserve Kalanggaman's beauty while making travel to the island as convenient as possible.

the sandbar at Kalanggaman Island
Kalanggaman's snaking sandbar

Cuatro Islas

Another tropical gem in Leyte is the group of four islands off the towns of Inopacan and Hindang. Known collectively as Cuatro Islas (Four Islands), this island group has yet to reach the popularity of Kalanggaman. We've actually seen it in a postcard at the turn of the century but only got to visit it this year. Indeed the islands of Mahaba, Digyo, Himokilan and Apid are unpolished gems waiting to be discovered.

Digyo Island, Cuatro Islas, Inopacan, Leyte
Digyo Island.

All four islands can easily be reached by pump boat from a pantalan or a dock for boats just at the back of the Inopacan municipal hall. White sand beaches, crystal-clear waters and lush green vegetation characterize the Cuatro Islas. There is abundant coral growth in most of the islands several meters from shore, making them good snorkeling and diving destinations. Like Kalanggaman Island up north there are no fancy accommodations here. Some like Digyo have a few basic huts to provide shade, shelter and a place to dine. There are small villages in Apid and Himokilan but for the most part there are few houses in the rest of the Cuatro Islas. The islands have remained remarkably pristine for the most part.

the beach at Mahaba Island's eastern side
Mahaba Island

If you have time and are looking for a side trip after your Cuatro Islas jaunt you can drop by Hindang to see the caves and wild monkeys in the town.

beach cove at Himokilan with coraf reef in the foreground
Beautiful beach cove at Himokilan Island; coral reef in the foreground.

Lake Danao

Leyte is a mountainous province so your options are not limited to tropical islands and beaches. Sitting at an elevation similar to Tagaytay's, Lake Danao in Ormoc City provides a cool escape from the summer heat in the lowlands. The lake is part of the 2,100+ hectare Lake Danao National Park and is surrounded by the Amandiwin mountain range. Lush forests still exist in this part of Leyte; some pine trees may even be sighted in the vicinity of the lake. You can rent a raft to take you to the middle of Lake Danao and have your lunch right there or go hiking to a view deck on the banks of the lake for a panoramic view of the guitar-shaped lake.

children playing on dugout canoe, Lake Danao
Lake Danao.

On our drive back to Ormoc City proper from Lake Danao in hilly terrain, we could easily make out the Tongonan geothermal power plant which is one of the several major geothermal power plants in the area. Our multi-cab driver mentioned that there are several waterfalls inside the power plant area but that these are off-limits for security reasons.

Ormoc City

A good base for travel to Kalanggman, Cuatro Islas, Lake Danao and other tourist destinations in the western part of Leyte is the city of Ormoc City. Ormoc has gone through a history of man-made and natural disasters such as the Battle of Ormoc Bay in World War 2, the 1991 flash flood that killed 5,000 people and Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. It has recovered and gotten back on its feet each time. During our first visit there this year, it was evident that the city has not only recovered from Typhoon Yolanda, it was even progressing rapidly.

sunset at a tidal flat near Ormoc City pier
Ormoc City sunset.

At Ormoc, take time to hang out at the Ormoc City Park and the bay walk. The sunsets by the sea are something to behold. There are several dining destinations worth visiting as well, particularly those specializing in su-tu-kil. Su-tu-kil refers to the three ways that seafood is cooked namely sugba (grilled), tuwa (a local soup dish) and kilaw (served raw and marinated in vinegar and spices, as in ceviche).

Tacloban City

If you're traveling to Leyte by plane, Tacloban City is the only city with a commercial airport in the province. We've always gone through Tacloban in all of our visits to Leyte. The city serves as a vital travel hub to the rest of the island and the nearby provinces of Biliran, Eastern Samar and Samar. The city has made headlines in recent times because of the devastation it suffered from Typhoon Yolanda. Even after almost 2 years, signs of the devastation are still apparent but the city is moving on.

the San Juanico Bridge links Leyte to Samar
San Juanico Bridge

The most famous landmark in Tacloban is of course the San Juanico Bridge which links the islands of Leyte and Samar. The Leyte Landing Memorial, the landmark that commemorates the 1944 landing of General Douglas MacArthur and the U.S. Army is actually located in the adjacent municipality of Palo, the former provincial capital, and not in Tacloban, although the distance to the memorial is not too far from the city center.

the Leyte Landing Memorial in Palo, Leyte
The Leyte Landing Memorial in Palo

Canigao Island and Matalom

Along with Kalanggaman Island and Cuatro Islas, Canigao Island is one of the top beach destinations in Leyte province. Located further south from Inopacan and Cuatro Islas and just off the coastal town of Matalom, Canigao is an elliptical-shaped islet blessed with powdery white sand, crystal-clear waters, lush tropical vegetation and rich marine life. It's also just 15-20 minutes away by motorized outrigger from Matalom town. Oh, and while you're at it take time to visit the two-tiered Mahayahay Falls, also in Matalom town. There's also equally beautiful Gunhuban Falls in Bato town to the northeast of Matalom.

Canigao Island, Matalom, Leyte
Canigao Island. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Southern Leyte

Politically distinct from the province of Leyte but still a part of the island is Southern Leyte province. If tourist destinations in Leyte province are not as well-known as elsewhere, those in Southern Leyte are even more unfamiliar but no less enthralling. The capital city of Maasin is home to Cagnituan Falls and Lagoon and the Guinsohotan Subterranean Cave. Padre Burgos has the white sand Tangkaan Beach and is the launching pad for trips to historic Limasawa Island with its white sand beaches and rich marine life including beautiful coral reefs and a variety of pelagics – definitely a diver's paradise. Slowly becoming famous for whale shark-watching (and a good eco-friendly alternative to Oslob in Cebu) is Panaon Island in Liloan. This island is part of the Mindanao Deep, the second deepest body of water in the planet (next only to the Marianas or Philippine Trench) and therefore attracts a rich diversity of marine life including dolphins and whales. There's a host of other travel destinations in Southern Leyte too numerous to mention here so we'll just include the province in our bucket list.

huge rock on white sand beach at the eastern shore of Higatangan Island, Biliran
Higatangan Island, Biliran


This small island province used to be a part of Leyte until its separation from the latter in 1992. Biliran may be small in size but has a host of tourist destinations packed into one package – white sand beaches, turquoise waters teeming with marine life, rushing waterfalls hidden in dense tropical rainforests and verdant rice terraces set amidst the backdrop of gently rolling hills. Similar to its mother province, the tourist destinations in this province are just now being discovered.

With such a host of travel destinations, Leyte and its surrounding provinces are not wanting in natural beauty, adventure and excitement – definitely a place worth your precious travel time and money.

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Mahaba Island
Mahaba Island
Mahaba Island
Higatangan Island, Biliran
beach on Higatangan Island, Biliran
Tinago Falls, Biliran
Lake Danao
Ormoc City sunset
San Juanico Bridge, Tacloban
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