One thing that you should be prepared for when traveling to off-beat destinations is the prospect of getting delays or a few little surprises along the way. I guess the unpredictability forms part of the excitement when you travel to these places, apart from its charm. This is what I had to endure when I decided to head south to Cebu, cross the waters to Dumaguete, and then cross over to Siquijor to attempt to de-mystify the island of fire.
As the RoRo tugged slowly across the channel, I remembered the mysticism that Siquijor is associated with. The island is believed to be the home of magic and sorcery. If local folklore is to be believed, it is a place where witches and warlocks exists. It is a place where you can get different talismans and potion depending on the type that you are looking for. It is these very same perception that got me interested with visiting Siquijor, although some may have a different shade to the idea of spending time there.
Siquijor is the 3rd smallest province in the Philippines, in terms of land area and population. It was first sighted in 1565 by the Spanish conquistadors and referred to it as "Isla de Fuego", Island of Fire, because of the eerie glow emanating from the island. The eerie glow was later on associated to the swarms of fireflies present in the island. It is an island made popular by its mysticism but is now slowly attracting travelers who simply want to experience a different kind of thrill.
"Welcome to Siquijor"
The greeting sign was enough to give me a shake that I was already in Siquijor. As people rushed to head outside the port, I took the time to just enjoy the serene and unassuming beauty of Siquijor that greeted me. The white sand shore, where the port juts out from, was a captivating sight and a real beauty that greets travelers. It is a great telltale sign that your trip is going to be an amazing one.
The first edifice to greet you is the Siquijor Church, also known as the Saint Francis de Assisi Church, as it stands a few meters away from the port. The century-old church was first established in 1783. The current structure of coral stones was completed in 1831. It now stands like a welcome arc with its landscaped lawn bearing the "Welcome To Siquijor" marker.
The simple facade of the Siquijor Church is reflective of the simplicity of the place. It reflected the simple way of life of the locals. It was simple and elegantly beautiful. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to check out its interiors as our guide was already excited to show us around.
A few meters from the church is the bell tower that was built in 1891. It also doubled up as a watchtower that warns locals of approaching raiders.
Unraveling the Mystic Beauty of Siquijor
After a quick drop-off at the resort and a much-needed lunch, we were off to a tricycle tour of the island. They say that you can tour the island in three hours but I recommend that you set aside at least 5 to 6 hours to enjoy it to the fullest. In our case, we missed out a couple of amazing sites because the darkness of the night had already set in before we can even complete the circumferential road of Siquijor.
Capilay Spring Park
Right at the heart of San Juan is a public park known for its natural cold spring pools. It is a favorite hangout of locals where kids and the kids-at-heart can enjoy the cool waters of the spring. The best part of it is its access is free of charge.
I tried to climb the stairs leading to a grotto just to try to get a better angle of the park. I met some shy locals along the way and I asked them where the waters of the pool come from. No one knows where the water source is.
Meanwhile down by the pool, the sound boisterous laughter rings around the park. A group of young boys have been jumping around into the pool. They are all trying to outdo each other with their tumbling acts. This is how kids should play nowadays - pure fun while out in the sun.
I found my own spot by the wayside of the pool. I cannot miss out on this one. I dipped my two feet into the cold springwaters of the pool. It was a welcome relief for my tired feet after a long journey to the island.
Century Old Balete
Philippine folklore tells you to stay away from a Balete tree, a local tree that is believed to be the home of deities and spirits. Stories have been told that these deities invites you to come with them to their kingdom where lavish feast are prepared for you. Once you partake of their meals, it is the point where you can no longer return to your earthly home.
On this side of the Philippines, Siquijor marvels at its century-old Balete tree without fear. It is a tourist destination complete with a freshwater spring pool where you can soak your tired feet. The water source comes from the foot of the 400 year old Balete. The massive tree is enchanting that you would completely forget all the warning that you were told about getting close to a Balete tree just to get that perfect shot with it.
Did I get spooked out during the visit?
I surely did when I dipped my feet into the pool. For a minimal fee of Php5, you get to experience small fish nibbling on your feet's dead skin cells. You would get spooked though when the larger ones, similiar to the large tilapia, start approaching your feet - a great and fun way to get spooked under the shade of a Balete Tree.
Simbahan at Kumbento ng Lazi
Established in 1857, the Lazi Church was built and completed in 1884 and was dedicated to Saint Isidore the Laborer. The church was built from sea stones and wood. It is one of the oldest churches in the country and was declared as a National Historical Landmark in 1984. The modest design of the church emits a serene atmosphere as the afternoon ray hits its facade.
Walking inside the church, I was impressed by the simple beauty of the church. It reminded me of the old churches of Bohol. The simple interior complemented the simple facade of the church. The aquamarine ceiling stands out together with the two pulpits near the altar. The two-tierred retablo serves as the main centerpiece of the church.
You can stroll by the church's courtyard and be amazed by its simplicity. You can enjoy admiring the bell tower adjacent to the church as you enjoy the peace and quiet that Lazi Church offers.
Just right across the church is the Lazi Convent, one of the largest convent built during the Spanish era. The convent has a "bahay na bato" design with a dimension of 42 meters by 38 meters. Unfortunately, the convent was undergoing refurbishment at the time of our visit so we can only admire it from a distance.
It took me a long time to muster my courage to take the leap and when I finally did, it was one hell of an experience, although I knew that I looked awkward. The spirits around Cambugahay Falls were probably laughing at me. Don't worry because I was also laughing with them, as well.
Just a few minutes away from the Lazi Church was the three-tierred waterfall of Lazi - the Cambugahay Falls. The falls is a favorite destination where people can take a relaxing dip into its fresh cold springwaters. But more than taking the dip, Cambugahay Falls is popular among travelers because of the sheer thrill that it gives - jumping off from the top of the falls or swinging your way directly into the pool at its base.
One needs to traverse down the stairs to get to the waterfalls, from the main road. There are two areas where you can jump or swing - the first and third tier of Cambugahay. Swing ropes are already in place to get you started and, once you are warmed up, you can then proceed to jumping off from the top of the falls.
Trust me. The experience of swinging it out like Tarzan or jumping off the falls like Indiana Jones is not mysticism. It is a thrilling experience.
Santa Maria Church
The sun was starting to set as we raced way to Salagdoong before it got totally dark. We made a short stop at the town of Maria which is believed to be the home of the "mambabarangs", according to our guide. Out of curiosity, I asked if there was truth to these rumors of "mambabarang" in Siquijor. Our guide confirmed that they do exist and that they lived in the mountains. He even offered to bring us to one of them to which I declined at that time. I think that I am not yet ready to face one legit "mambabarang".
We stopped by the roadside where we can get a good look at another famous church, which I just recently found out, in Siquijor. The dusk setting in, and the thought of "mambabarangs", gave the church an eerie feel. The minimalist facade of the church and the adjacent squat belfry showed that the church is ripe with age.
The "Simbahan ng Santa Maria" is the home of the the Santa Rita de Siquijor, also known as the Black Magic Maria. The image of Santa Rita holds a skull and an "inverted" crucifix. It stares can also interpreted differently by many. The image was also believed to have once roamed the island only to return to its place before the break of dawn. Unfortunately, I was not able to explore much of the simple interior of the church or view the said image as we were in a rush to our next pit stop.
I wouldn't say that it was not the best time when we visited Salagdoong Beach but we were lucky to have seen the last ray of light just in time as soon as we stepped into the sandy shores of another famous spot in the island.
We were lucky to have caught a couple of guests trying out cliff jumping as this is one spot famous for it. There are two platforms where you can dash, jump, and free fall into the cool saltwaters of Salagondoong. This is one activity that I missed out and I am rearing to do on my next visit soon.
Salagondoong Beach is a real beauty even during the night. The local government has managed to make a simple park with simple accomodations for those who want to stay overnight in Salagondoong. Too bad though that we had so much fun during the trip that we were a little too late to appreciate its beauty. No worries because this is one spot worth checking out soon.
Laidback San Juan
After a tiring day of touring most of the famed spots of Siquijor, it was nice to wake up to a crisp and laid back morning in the island.
The town of San Juan is known for its amazing picture perfect white sand beach lined with coconut trees. So it is not a surprise that most of the resorts are found along this stretch. It is the PERFECT place for those who simply want to chill out by the beach where you can simply find a spot under the shade of coconut trees, read a book, and sip your coffee or favorite drink. Every now and then, you would greeted by travelers, most of them are foreigners by the way, who are exploring the side of your beach or you would hear young children playing by the sand.
I was not surprised that most of the people I met were either foreign travelers or locals as I could still classify Siquijor as an offbeat destination. We did explore the beach stretch and it was like a big playground for different ages. There are makeshift swings, made from old rubber tires that you can gamely hop on. It will definitely bring back the child in you. If that is not your type of game then there are hammocks where you can take a snooze or simply explore the rock formations at the far leftmost end of the beach.
The locals are very welcoming to their guests. We chanced upon a group of locals harvesting sea urchins which they sell to foreign guests. These local delicacy is often added to omellete to give it a different flavor. I wanted to bring home a bottle but I was told that you need to eat it within the day of the purchase so I had to scrap off the idea.
The only thing that is probably a downside of San Juan is that the beaches along this side, except for a few exceptions, are not ideal for swimming. The part of the beach that gets covered by water is a mix of sand and loam which gives you an odd sensation once your feet sinks into it. Nevertheless, there are other activities that you can do like kayaking which most resorts offer.
Post Travel Notes
Siquijor goes beyond its much-talked about public perception of being a place of magic and sorcery. It is a place of natural beauty that sooner or later will start catching up on regular travelers as evidenced by the sprouting of resorts in the island. It is a place where nature's beauty gives travelers a different adrenaline-pumping adventure. It is a place where you get to face, challenge, and conquer your fears in a fun and unforgettable way.
Siquijor goes beyond mystical. It is enchanting. It has that unique charm that made me fall in love with the place. This is the place that I visited where I can say "nabitin ako". I want to explore and enjoy its peaceful atmosphere again.
Siquijor casted its spell on me that I am excitedly thinking of going back to the island soon.
Getting There: Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific have daily flights to Dumaguete City from Manila. The flight takes about an hour. You can take a trike from the airport to the Dumaguete Port where you can take the RORO or the Fastcraft to Siquijor. RORO trips may change depending on the season while the Fastcraft have regular trips to Siquijor that leaves Dumaguete around after lunch.
To get a full Siquijor trike tour, you can get in touch with Kuya Richard at +63908 7533611. He can also help you find a great place to stay depending on your preference.
Our trip took a little longer than usual from the plan. The bus driver assigned to us had no idea on how to get to the destination. At one point, I was already ready to help the driver with the directions. I, together with two bus-loads of participants and media practitioners, were headed to San Juan, La Union for @reefph’s “Free The Sea Movement”.
The weekend activity, in partnership with World Wildlife Fund, was aimed at raising environmental awareness in the community and with its participants. The main activity was a beach clean-up drive along the shores of San Juan in La Union, a known surfing spot north of Manila.
San Juan is considered to be the “Surfing Capital of Northern Luzon”. Situated along the western coast of the Philippines facing the West Philippine Sea, the municipality is a favorite weekend destination of folks from Manila and its surrounding towns. It enjoys intermediate surf waves that charms beginners and challenges the advance surfers. Although surfing has been a major tourist and economic draw for San Juan, a great deal of its local residents are also into cottage industries like pottery, blanket weaving and broom-making.
Beach Clean-up San Juan
Just right after lunch by the beach, we were briefed by representatives of the World Wildlife Fund on the background of the day's activity. Did you know that 80% of our garbage end up polluting the earth's waters? The improper waste disposal behaviors of humans affect the balance of our ecosystem. The pollutants are mistaken as food by marine animals which end up killing them. Hence, we are all encouraged to practice the 3Rs of waste disposal - Re-use, Recycle, and Reduce.
Our activity had the participants walk the stretch of San Juan's gray sand coastline to pick-up garbage, both biodegradable and non-biodegradable. To make the activity exciting, the organizers had us searching for specially marked "treasures" along the way.There was a catch though... we had to do it under the heat of the mid-afternoon sun. But what the heck, we all did it anyway because you always spend a beach weekend under the sun and we were doing this for a purpose.
Interestingly, the participants had a hard time looking for garbage along the beach.. As it turned out, the residents of San Juan regularly conducts beach clean-ups. They also feel responsible in ensuring the cleanliness of the area where they get their livelihood. The locals' understanding and involvement in the community is a great example of how the local government and communities can work together in creating a sustainable tourism livelihood whilst safekeeping the environment.
Yes, we did have a hard time looking for garbage but we were not complaining. We had more time to enjoy the beach.
San Juan - Beyond Its Shores
After the main activity, we were given the option to either go surfing or spend the next couple of hours on our own. The explorer in me opted for the latter and started out mapping my plans. An old post of a baluarte in San Juan by my brother, who happened to be a resident of the place, piqued my interest. I decided to explore and discover San Juan beyond its shores.
San Juan Town Center
15 minutes away from the surfing shores of San Juan is the sleepy town center of the municipality. It is located along the main highway so it is not that hard to miss. You would reckon that it is the center of power as this is where the Municipal Hall, the church, and business establishments are located. San Juan is an old town dating back to 1582 and has had its own role in the fight for indendence of the country. It is amazing that local officials have managed to keep its history alive by giving a pre-Spanish feel for its government buildings.
Just by the highway is the Presidencia - the seat of the San Juan local government. It serves as the flagship structure of the town with its pre-Spanish design. Behind it are the other government offices and buildings that follow the same design as that of the Presidencia.
Just a couple of meters from the Presidencia is a 2-storey building that serves as the town museum. Unfortunately, the Museo de San Juan was closed at the time of my visit so I was not able to explore it.
At the center of town is an open-space park, also known as the "People's Park". A number of students were busy practicing for a school activity at the time of my visit. Incidentally, the stage had a picture of the Baluarte that I was looking for. It was an affirmation that it does exist and that the locals are aware of it.
Saint John the Baptist Church
The Saint John The Baptist Church stands within the vicinity of the town center. The red-brick facade of the church was reconstructed in 1902 after it was destroyed during the Philippine Revolution. The simple facade of the church is a reflection the town's simple life. A three-storey belfry stands adjacent to the church.
A main altar and two adjacent retablos adorn the church's interior. The retablos are all painted in white and an image of a Crucified Jesus Christ is the main figure on the altar. But what is striking with the interior is the painting on the ceiling of the church depicting the baptism of Jesus Christ by the town's patron saint. It stands out in full color in a white-washed church interior.
Just right beside the church is the convent. The convent was also burned down during the revolution. I guess the locals were able to preseve the old red-brick walls of the convent and incorporate it to its present structure.
San Juan Baluarte
Standing along the sandy shores of San Juan is a circular watchtower that once served this town. It is one of the lesser known "baluartes" in La Union as it stays under the shadows of the scenic Luna Baluarte, north of the town. You find very little information about this tower on the internet probably because it is not on every travelers watchlist. Nevertheless, a old post by my brother of the "baluarte" had me searching for it.
The San Juan Baluarte is about a 10 to 15 minute walk towards the direction of the beach. Most locals know about it when you ask help for directions. As it loomed into view, I got excited to see a full circular watchtower on the horizon against the backdrop of the afternoon sun. My excitement got hosed down after seeing that the Baluarte was reconstructed in poor taste.
The Baluarte stands along a higher area of the beach and has a good view of the West Philippine Sea. A compound, probably a resort, stands adjacent to the tower.
The tower was reconstructed but a small section of the watchtower remained intact from its old structure. Unlike the Luna Watchtower where you could still see its original walls, this "baluarte" only had a small section of its original wall and it is probably the reason why it did not appeal to most travelers.
The watchtower was re-constructed probably to serve as an added attraction but failed miserably with its plan. The one in-charge failed to consider the same materials used in the construction of the original fortress or materials close to it instead of the usual hollow blocks that was used. I also get the impression that the project was abandoned after the mishap.
Nevertheless, my quest to search for the San Juan Baluarte was a success and it gave me a glimpse of how San Juan was once a thriving town in the past.
Surfing San Juan
A trip to the Surfing Capital of the North will not be complete without getting into the water and attempt to stand up on a surfing board. Of course, @reefph had that all ready when they gave each "Free The Sea Movement" participant free surfing lessons.
San Juan is the primary surfing spot where it enjoys swells the whole year round. These swells are good for those who are just eager to learn and those who take surfing seriously.
In my case, I have tried surfing in various travels so, after a few misses and a couple of glasses of saltwater, I was already riding the waves of San Juan.
San Juan Sunset
I was not really keen on riding the waves that long as I was tired from the travel and the day's activity that when my coach said that my time's up, I smiled and headed back to the shore. Of course, I had to do it in style, standing on a surf board.
One of the amazing things to do in La Union is catching the sunset and San Juan is not an exception. I did settle down at its sandy shores to catch the spectacle of the sun setting on the horizon. Unfortunately, the clouds decided to play that afternoon so I was not able to catch its full beauty. Nevertheless, it still gave a dramatic view and was a fitting end to a day of purpose, exploration, and adventure.
Post Travel Notes
San Juan is a small town that made its mark by offering a different thrill – the thrill of conquering water by riding its waves. It is an opportunity that gave the community a new lifeline. However, it is also that same opportunity that ushered in the chances of spoiling what nature has accorded to them. It was a learning experience for me to find out that the community in itself had taken upon themselves a sustainable tourism opportunity by understanding and taking action, even in the simplest way of regularly having a beach clean-up drive.
On the side, San Juan may have its tourism anchored on surfing but a short walk around town can spice up your trip. It is nice to get yourself immersed in the culture and history of the town. New discoveries can spark renewed interest on San Juan.
The “Free The Sea Movement”, organized by @reefph, was a great opportunity to re-learn the value of being a responsible traveller. It is important that, apart from the community, we are also aware that we need to do our part which starts right at home. That in the end, the small responsible actions that we do, affects even the communities that are far from us.
Getting There: One can take a bus headed for Candon or Laoag City as these buses pass by San Juan town. The scenic trip takes about 5 hours. You can ask the conductor to drop you off at the beach strip where most surfing hotels and resorts are located.
Special thanks to @reefph for organizing the trip. It was a great experience and I just wish that you will have more activities similar to this one where you can raise environmental awareness while having fun.
Marc del Rosario
I believe in education, entrepreneurship, and caring for the environment.