The Gentle Giants
If Sofio, the boatman, glances my way, he would see the childish astonishment on my face. “Do not panic. They’re harmless,” he calls out to a lady who furiously back-paddles when a giant tuki or whale shark breaks into the surface amongst a dozen snorkelers. Holding my breath, I freeze for a moment when a larger one heads straight towards me. Its broad mouth is agape as if ready to swallow me whole. Nervously fumbling for the buttons of my small camera, I watch in awe as the seven-meter creature glides within a few feet from my face, turning its enormous and beautifully dotted body away from me only seconds before impact.
“We used to ride them when we were children, but we discourage it now because they become frisky,” says Sofio. According to him, the tuki have been frequenting the shores of Oslob for centuries due to the abundance of alamang (small saltwater shrimps), which is their primary food. The whale shark or Rhincodon Typus is the largest known fish specie, which can grow up to 18 meters long. Despite its size, the whale shark does not pose significant peril to humans because it only feeds on tiny food, like plankton, by sucking water through its wide mouth.
A fourth income class municipality in the province of Cebu, Oslob became a popular destination in 2011 when tourists started flocking to its sleepy seaside village, Tan-awan, to see the gentle giants. This has provided additional income to the townspeople, who live mainly on fishing and agriculture.
Seeing more dorsal fins on the surface, I find myself reluctant to leave the clear glistening waters. But since each visitor is limited only to a 30-minute whale shark interaction, Kuya Raul, the gracious driver from the Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort, excitedly suggests that I also visit the nearby waterfalls.
A 15-minute van ride from the whale-watching area followed by a 500-meter trek on a steep mountainside pathway takes me to the foot of Tumalog Falls. Squinting through the large spray from the mushroom-like rock formations, I see why Tumalog Falls easily enthralls many visitors. The stream of clear water bounces several times from one rock to another before it reaches the shallow pool below. Surrounded by towering age-old butong (bamboo) trees, the cascade looks like silk that drapes beautifully on the moss-covered cliff. Besides being a major tourist attraction in Oslob, the waterfalls is also an important water source for the villagers.
When the Moro piratical attacks on Christian communities all over the country began in the 16th century, the small coastal towns of Cebu were not spared. These pillages were the Moros’ retaliation against the Spanish invaders, who had displaced them from the political and economical dominance they once enjoyed. For more than two centuries, many Christianized Filipinos were either killed or captured for slavery and their villages looted and burned to the ground. Determined to end the atrocity, an Augustinian Friar named Julian Bermejo, who was assigned to Boljoon Parish in southeast Cebu, organized a defense system and led the construction of a series of baluartes (watchtowers) where cannons were mounted, stonewalled churches that served both as places of worship and refuge and barangayes (fast-sailing ships used to pursue Muslim boats). Many of these watchtowers and centuries-old churches still stand today as silent reminders to the traumatic era.
One of the resilient edifices is the church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception in Oslob, which was started in 1830. Since the parish only relied on voluntary labor from the townspeople, the construction was finished 18 years later. In 1858, the bell tower was built. The thick sturdy walls of the church and the three-tier belfry were constructed out of corals quarried from the nearby seas and lime from powdered seashells. Parts of the church burned down during the Second World War in 1955. It was eventually restored but was hit by fire again in 2008. Its restoration was completed once again in 2010.
Within the vicinity of the church are two other historical structures: the cuartel and the watchtower ruins. Started in 1860, the unfinished building, also made of coral blocks, was intended to be the cuartel or barracks for the Spanish armies. It was not completed due to the arrival of the Americans in 1899, which marked the end of the Spanish regime. Not far from the cuartel are the ruins of one of the seven baluartes along the coastline of Oslob. Built in 1788, the 7-meter tall watchtower has a hexagonal structure, thick stonewalls and a small entrance.
In the town of Boljoon, next to Oslob, stands the oldest remaining original stone church in Cebu. In 1999, the Boljoon Church or the Church of Nuestra Senora Patrocinio de Maria was declared as a National Cultural Treasure by the National Museum of the Philippines. It was started in 1783 after the original church crumbled in fire, and was completed in 1814. The church has a simple barn-like structure, with high arch windows just below its pediment. Being in the center of Fr. Julian Bermejo’s defense network, its walls were made very thick with impregnable coral slabs, lime and mortar. Despite the calamities that struck Cebu during the past years, about 90 percent of the church is of its original construction, including the clay roofing, choir’s loft and the pulpit.
Adjacent to the church is the largest existing Spanish watchtower in the Philippines built in 1808. Referred to as El Gran Baluarte, it served as Fr. Bermejo’s headquarters during the peak of the Moro raids. Today, the two-story blockhouse serves as a bell tower, with iron-cast bells replacing the artilleries that were once installed in its crenellated walls. Its ground floor has a prison cell and a storehouse for ammunition.
At the back of El Gran Baluarte is an American era stone house called Esculea Catolica, which has a double grand staircase. Built in 1940, this was a dormitory for children who were required to stay in-house the night before their first Holy Communion.
Further, in the town of Carcar, I see another beautiful Spanish period church. The two Muslim-style bell towers, each with a crucifix on top, on both sides of the low-pitched pediment make the St. Catherine of Alexandria Church distinct. Its construction began in 1860 and was completed in 1875. The patio is surrounded with a concrete fence and pedestalled statues of the Apostles. Inside, my eyes feast on the beautiful ceiling of blue and gold, intricately sculpted Stations of the Cross, statues of angels holding the lampposts on the columns and the tombstones of the church’s previous caretakers on the walls.
It is only in Carcar where I see so many well-preserved American era structures. Under the intense afternoon sun, I find myself drawn to the Carcar Dispensary, an eye-catching two-story building with exquisite latticework and stained glass doors and windows. It was built between 1929 and 1938, and houses the Carcar Museum today. The municipal building beside it also exhibits the same detailed woodwork. Also on the same street is the ornate Saint Catherine School, an all-girl Catholic school founded in 1923.
Luxury in Paradise
Even the lucent aquamarine waters suckling on the white sandbar of Sumilon Island have secrets to tell. In 1813, this dreamy island silently witnessed a bloody battle between the locals led by Fr. Julian Bermejo and the Moro pirates, where the latter had decisively fallen. Since then the marauders no longer dared to show themselves anywhere near Cebu.
The name Sumilon is believed to come from the word sumilong (to take shelter) since the island has mangroves and small natural caves that provided refuge to fishermen during storms. Teeming with underwater life, Sumilon Island was declared a marine sanctuary by the Silliman University in 1974. The 24-hectare coral island can be reached through a 15-minute boat ride from the coast of Bancongon in Oslob.
Noticing the beads of sweat on my face, the staff from Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort offers me a cold towel, a Lemongrass Cooler and a sincere welcoming smile as soon as I alight from the boat. Lunch is hefty and unforgettably delicious. I enjoy a full-course meal consisting of Cream of Lettuce, Shrimp Salad, Chicken Adobo Canapé, Fillet Steak, Mashed Potato and Tablea Swirl Cheesecake at the resort’s pavilion, which offers a gorgeous vista of the sea and the nearby mountains.
Afterwards, Evianne, the assistant manager ushers me to my elegant seafront villa. She asks if I want to tour the island. “Yes, please,” I eagerly reply.
Trekking on the rocky irregular terrain, my guide Dondon and I stop by the ruins of another 200-year old watchtower. Nestled in the luxuriant forest at the topmost part of the island, the baluarte has indeed a strategic location that might have contributed greatly to the downfall of the pirates during the epic battle. A nerve-racking climb to the top of the solar-powered lighthouse beside it rewards me with a breathtaking panoramic view of the island.
As we move further, I see that despite the luxurious amenities the solitary resort offers, a large part of Sumilon Island, including the pocket beaches around it, has remained pristine. The cottages along the largest beach are made only of natural materials.
The island also has a natural lagoon, surrounded by thriving mangroves, where visitors can feed the fish and go kayaking. Beside the lagoon is the “glamping” or glamorous camping area for guests who want to experience camping without sacrificing comfort.
Exhausted and unable to think of anything else to do, I decide to spend the rest of the afternoon at the medium-sized infinity pool overlooking the turquoise waters of the Bohol Sea. Watching the bright blue skies give way to pale yellows and purples while listening to the sea waves below is the perfect conclusion to a sweltering day of swimming, trekking and church hopping. Or is it? I am suddenly undecided when I see the bamboo cabanas, where guests can get a hilot massage, perched on one side of the cliff. I end up doing both. After all, it’s not everyday that I get to have a deluxe experience in paradise.
How To Get There:
1.) Tan-awan, Oslob (whale-watching area)
- If you are coming from Cebu City, go to the South Cebu Bus Terminal. Ride the Ceres Bus Line bound for Oslob. Travel time is 3-4 hours and fare is around Php 150
- If you are coming from Dumaguete, which is nearer, ride a tricycle or multicab to Sibulan Port (Php 150), where you can ride a ferry (php 60) to Liloan in Cebu. The ferry departs every hour and travel time is around 15 minutes. From Liloan Port, ride a tricycle or bus to Tan-awan, Oslob. Travel time is around 15-20 minutes.
2.) Sumilon Island
- Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort provides shuttle services and boat transfers upon reservation
- If you won’t stay at the resort, you may rent a boat from Brgy. Bancongon in Oslob. (Php 1,500)
3.) Tumalog Falls
- You’ll find motorcycles that take tourists to Tumalog Falls right outside the whale watching area (Php 120).
Where to Stay:
Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort
Bancongon, Oslob, Cebu 6025
09176317514 or 09176317512