Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Smitten by Siquijor (Part 1)

Ask anyone who hasn’t been to Siquijor if he’s willing to go on a 3D/2N vacay in this mystical island in Central Visayas and, chances are, his reaction would be any of the following: one, give you a puzzled look; two, utter a derisive mouthful; three, laugh out loud mockingly; four, tell you you’re nuts; or five, balk flatly at the idea. Try doing it when there’s a full moon with the sound of howling dogs at the background and I bet he’d do all of the above. LOL!

Can’t blame the fellow if he turns a blind eye on Siquijor. He’s probably imagining a spooky place inhabited by witches practicing black magic, performing strange rituals, producing mind-altering potions and other creepy crap. To most people, this little-known paradise island conjures up in the head those horror images glorified in today’s slew of Pinoy scare movies. Given that, who would dare sit back in a scary island like that? Well, count this adventure junkie in to take the dare!
Salagdoong Beach

Siquijor is probably one of those places where even the brave dare not go. “Brave” isn’t exactly the kind of adjective that best describes me so I dared to go there—again. It’s almost a decade since my first visit in the island which had me smitten for a few days back in 2004. So, a second coming isn’t such a bad thing. But this time, I ended up going solo since all my supposed travel buddies changed their minds! Perhaps out of fear? Geez, they’ve missed a lot for chickening out! LOL! 
Coco Grove Beach Resort

So, is Siquijor really that scary? Or is it a victim of a horror hype? Part of the island’s mystic probably comes from being tagged as the legendary realm of voodoo, known in the vernacular as barang. The much-talked-about image conditions people into thinking that the island is a God-forsaken hinterland where angels fear to tread. Blown out of proportion, strange tales about witchcraft and witchdoctors known as mambabarangs have put Siquijor under suspicion.

Blessed with a largely uncharted beauty that’s wild and windswept, the island could have been a prime tourism magnet. Alas, its spine-chilling reputation precedes it. Out of unfounded fear, visitors shun Siquijor, opting to spend their vacay in nearby islands. If only people were more discerning about what they’ve read or heard from the grapevine, they’d discover there’s more to the island than all the much-ballyhooed voodoo stuff.

Because of the “scary” repute, Siquijor’s eye-popping sensations have remained largely unknown—bewitching stretches of immaculate beaches, wondrous waterfalls, centuries-old landmarks and picture perfect sceneries—all waiting to leave any first-time visitor awestruck. But foreigners who aren’t intimated by the island have been coming back in droves in recent years, thus, helping boost local tourism.

A glimpse of Siquijor

Take it from Governor Orlando Fua, Jr., whose reassuring statements are enshrined in one of the huge billboards found at the capital town’s port: “Siquijor is just perfect for relaxing and recuperating. Sorcery and black magic do not exist in the island.” Still not convinced? Then take it from this adventure junkie who’s been there twice already. The nasty things some people accuse Siquijor of—black magic, occultism, demonic possessions and what have you—are nothing but hoaxes!

Those tales about the island being the sorcerers’ lair are nothing but figments of the wild imagination probably based on tall tales of yore.  In recent years, many road warriors, both local and international, have started to discover the real Siquijor and couldn’t believe what they saw there. In 2012 alone, the island scored the second highest growth rate in tourist arrivals among the four island provinces belonging to Central Visayas at 17.7 percent!

Lying midway between the Visayas and Mindanao, Siquijor is said to be the third smallest island province in the country next to Batanes and Camiguin, if I’m not mistaken. Truly a gem not to be missed, it is made up of six towns: Enrique Villanueva, Larena, Lazi, Maria, San Juan and Siquijor, the provincial capital. Farmers and fisher folks from Cebu, Bohol, Negros and other neighboring islands were said to be its first inhabitants. As of the last census, Siquijodnons number about 90,000.

How does one reach this spellbinding destination? The quickest way to get to Siquijor would be through any of the commercial flights bound for either Cebu or Dumaguete. Boarding on a Cebu-bound plane, I arrived at the international airport in Mactan in less than an hour and immediately proceeded to Pier 1 in downtown Cebu where fast ferries plying the Cebu-Siquijor route are docked. 

It was late in the afternoon when I went on a cruise aboard one of Ocean Jet’s fast crafts.  As the boat cruised through the placid waters of Bohol Strait, I fell asleep for the most part of the four-hour voyage, managing to wake up just in time before the boat reached the capital town's pier. Ships and fast ferries coming from Cebu, Tagbilaran, Dumaguete and Iligan dock at the ports found in  Siquijor and Larena.

Arriving at the pier shortly before 9 p.m., I hopped into a shuttle service courtesy of the beach resort where I was billeted. Accommodations are scattered all over the island but I opted for Coco Grove Beach Resort, probably the oldest among the charming resorts lining the white-sand stretch of San Juan. Transients expecting to find only the bare essentials in a Siquijor resort like Coco Grove would be surprised to know that it can rival those of the more established hotels and resorts elsewhere in the country.
Tired, I hit the sack about an hour before midnight, waking up early the following day. Around 6 a.m., I went for a short walk along the white-sand beach just a few steps away from my cabana. As the cold morning breeze touched my face, I felt so refreshed and perked up to start my first day in the island. Since I haven’t had breakfast by the beach in a long time, I had it served right by the beachfront where I sat back and relaxed, smitten by the beauty of Siquijor’s spellbinding seascapes. Ah, the simple pleasures of life…  

There’s a coastal road circling the island so I thought of going around for a joyride. Having done it once, I was excited to cover anew 360 degrees of Siquijor in a day’s time. Good thing, Coco Grove provided me a van as part of the guided tour I arranged with them. But even without the van, I knew that moving around isn’t that complicated given the numerous PUJs, pedicabs and motorbikes that I could find along the highway.

Humongous banyan tree
First stop was a 400-year old balete (banyan) tree somewhere in the outskirts of the capital town. Because of its eerie look created by hundreds of roots and vines hanging down, the tree is believed to be enchanted. Other than leaving visitors awestruck, it also provides a potable source of water for residents in the area. Gazing at it, I wondered what could be living inside the humungous tree—lovely fairies or hideous creatures? LOL!

As we went along with the tour, my guide shared about one of Siquijor’s best-kept secrets by the sea: Tulapos Marine Sanctuary, the biggest among the many marine sanctuaries found in the island. I haven’t been to this spot during my last visit so I asked him to take me there. Found in the town of Enrique Villanueva, the 14-hectare conservation area, which is composed of white-sand beaches, coral reefs and mangroves serves as a haven for various marine flora and fauna. 

Tulapos Marine Sanctuary
Just a few kilometres away from the sanctuary is another interesting oddity in Siquijor that’s become some sort of a tourist attraction: a 200-year old house found in the fishing village of Cang-isok. Remembering its decrepit state during my first visit, I was amazed to see it still standing proudly, unperturbed by the vagaries of time and clime!

While the sojourn along Siquijor’s coastal road was a breeze, exploring its interior is another story. It can be a daunting experience for city slickers accustomed to the creature comforts of urban life since most of the interior roads are still largely rough. The means of transportation there are overloaded more often than not. When PUJs are full to the hatches, passengers must be ready to cling to any safe part of the vehicle and hang on tight for dear life!

(to be continued)

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