“Finish your meal or the wakwak from Siquijor will rip out your innards and eat them!” Our help would growl and raise her fingers like a monster’s claws, scaring the ill-mannered six-year old me to consume the last morsel on my plate. Her impression of the aswang from Shake, Rattle and Roll never failed to make me behave and sit frozenly like the antique statuettes on our altar. Raised in the countryside, I grew up listening to stories about the mambabarang (black magic practitioner) and the shape-shifting creatures that skulk in the rooftop to feed on infants and the ailing. According to the stories, they abound in Siquijor, a small province located between the Visayan Islands of Negros and Mindanao. As I grew older, I heard of the wakwak less and more of the beautiful white sand beaches that make up most of the 102-kilometer coastline of the island. After packing my bag on impulse, I headed to the province I once thought was the scariest place in the country.
Called “Isla del Fuego” or “Island of Fire” by the Spaniards in the 16th century, Siquijor is home to swarms of fireflies that cast an eerie glow among the numerous gigantic trees at night. A folk legend says that the island rose from the ocean’s abysses after a tumultuous period of storm, earthquake, thunder and lightning.
Alighting from a small ferry after an hour ride from Dumaguete City, I was welcomed by the salty breeze that ruffled the crystalline water of Siquijor Beach just beside the port. The midday sun highlighted the vast radiant shoreline, as if hinting about the small island’s overflowing treasures.
“Those are just stories, nothing has been proven.” Kuya Edgar, our tricycle driver and guide, quickly debunked the island’s age-old reputation as a place of sorcery and unearthly beings. “There are some mananambal here though, mostly in the mountains,” he continued. He was referring to the folk healers who use roots, leaves and barks of certain trees to treat maladies. According to him, these herbal practitioners gather every Good Friday to cook up concoctions and perform healing rituals.
In the town of Siquijor not far from the port stands the St. Francis of Assisi Church. Built in 1793 and completed only in 1831 under the supervision of Spanish priests, it was the only Catholic Church in the island until the 1850s. It has undergone several restorations already but the rough coral stones on the walls somehow gave us a glimpse of the island’s roots. The belfry across the church, like most ancient towers in the country, is a silent reminder of the horrifying Moro piratical attacks on Christian communities during the Spanish colonial period. It was constructed in 1891 to forewarn the island folks of an approaching danger.
En route to our lodge, we had a brief stopover at the Guiwanon Spring Park in Barangay Luyang. The small roadside entrance led us to a bamboo bridge above the thriving mangroves and to a couple of Nipa houses perched on the stout branches of the Pagatpat trees. According to the caretaker, travelers can stay in these huts for as low as Php 250 a night. Sitting on the terrace, I savored the fresh aroma of the sea as the gentle wind rustled the lush woody vegetation. Below, a bouncy school of fish glinted in the emerald green water.
Dark thick clouds started to shroud the skies, creating a mysterious atmosphere around the empty fishing village of Dumanhog when we arrived. The tide was low, revealing wide swathes of powdery white sand. The fishermen must have decided to call it a day, leaving their colorful fishing boats to lounge on the shore. Also in the town of Siquijor, Dumanhog Beach is a tourist favorite because of its vast shoreline, according to Kuya Edgar.
Tucked away from the main road in the town of San Juan is another pristine white sand beach, marred only by the dead seagrass washed ashore during the monsoon season. Quiet and undeveloped, Paliton Beach has clear turquoise waters that expose a few clusters of coral and tiny fishes, allowing me a glimpse of its colorful underwater life. This hidden strip of paradise is usually not included in the day tours but tourists can request for a stopover.
Travelers won’t run out of stunning white sand beaches to lounge by in the town of San Juan, which has also the highest concentration of cozy beachfront resorts. After checking out some, I settled with JJ’s Backpacker for Php 600 a night, though I could’ve spent only half in the neighboring resorts. The wooden lodge with amakan interiors and the fine white sandbar of Sulangon Beach in front were too charming to resist.
Shrouded by the lush roadside greenery in Barangay Campalanas in the town of Lazi is a humongous 400-year old Balete tree, one of the oldest in the country. Long vines hang like hair from the tree’s outstretched branches and the roots cling thickly around its massive trunk. I was reminded of the stories of my childhood, about the hairy kapre (dark smoking giants), the white lady and the vindictive duwende (elves) who according to the elderly dwell in ancient trees. According to Kuya Edgar, some locals claim to have seen apparitions within the area at night.
A stream that emanates from the base of the tree flows into a man-made pool, which is a home to the garra rufa or the doctor fish. These fish thrive in rivers and hot springs and are usually integrated in spa treatments. Visitors are allowed to dip their calloused feet into the pool for the doctor fish to nibble on. Oddly, the locals do not know where the water comes from, fuelling the strange stories about the place.
Two National Historical Shrines stand among the gigantesque acacia trees in the town of Lazi: the San Isidro Labrador Church and the Lazi Convent.
The San Isidro Labrador Church was built by the Augustinian Recollects in 1857 and was completed 27 years after. Its meter-thick walls are made of coral stones and wood. Unlike many baroque churches in the country, it has a simple façade but nonetheless beautiful. It is also one of the few Spanish era churches in the country that still has its original wooden flooring and pulpits. The majestic belfry tower beside it was constructed in 1885
The complementary convent, which was then used by the friars for recreational purposes, stands across the street and dates back to 1887. Encompassing an area of 42 by 38 meters, the Lazi Convent is considered as the largest in the country. Its thick and sturdy walls are made of boulders, coral blocks and wood.
Two kilometers from the town of Lazi is another beautiful treasure, the Cambugahay Falls, which we had all to ourselves when we arrived. To get there, we had to take a 135-step concrete stairs that descend to the clear greenish-blue stream. Nestled among luxuriant vegetation, it consists of three-tiered waterfalls, with fresh and warm water coming from the springs in the mountains. It is a perfect place to just sit meditatively and listen to the sound of the water cascading gently over the rocks and the whistling of the birds among the trees.
After a relaxing swim at Cambugahay Falls, we drove further down north to the town of Maria. A few minutes after we passed through a small man-made forest, we alighted on a paved parking area beside a cliff, which has concrete stairs descending to Kagusuan Beach. Like sentinels posted to watch for intruders, several huge coral rocks stand sporadically on the pristine shore. Secluded and undeveloped, Kagusuan Beach is ideal for those who want to quietly enjoy the white sand, the clear waters and gentle splashing of the waves against the rocks.
Siquijor has also around 45 caves, the most famous of which is the Cantabon Cave. Not far from it is the Mt. Bandilaan National Park, the island’s highest point. Upland farmers claim to have unearthed giant shells and fossils from this area, supporting the theory that the island indeed rose from the ocean’s womb.
The tales of magic about the island are indeed true, though not exactly the kind that inspired fear for ages. Siquijor’s true magic is not on voodoo dolls and terrifying shapeshifting creatures, but on the raw breathtaking beaches, jungle-covered streams and waterfalls, centuries-old religious edifices, unique caves, rich marine sanctuaries, abundant waters and friendly locals.
How To Get There:
There are no direct flights to Siquijor. The easiest way to reach the “Island of Fire” is through Dumaguete City. Cebu Pacific and PAL fly daily to Dumaguete. From the port of Dumaguete City, take a ferry to Siquijor. Travel time is 1 hour and the fare is Php 120.
Expenses (1 whole day tour + overnight stay):
Tricycle (whole-day tour) Php 1000
Food and Drinks Php 1000
Accommodation (JJ’s Backpacker, San Juan) Php 600
Pasalubong Php 500
Boat Fare Php 240
Entrance Fees Php 100
TOTAL Php 3440