Siquijor: A Hidden Paradizzze in the Philippines (Part 1)

“We are going to Siquijor,” informing one of my closest friends.

She asked me to bring asin (salt) to shoo evil spirits.

She also pleaded me not to take anything from the locals. More so, not to drink anything that the locals offer.

Then, she asked me to remember Manilyn Reynes and Ana Roces, two of the most popular actors of our generations. She wanted me to remember how Roces tricked Reynes by making the latter believe that the former’s village is a safe haven. . . . .

“You talking about that film?!” I asked.

“But you know, that was Siquijor!” as if it was a matter of fact and a common sensical knowledge about the island.

Truth be told, my generation developed an ambient fear on the “idea” of Siquijor. When I was younger, this Philippine island-province was equated with the mambabarang and aswang (witches and monsters). To a point my generation associated anyone from the province as untrustworthy. We had feared people based on nonsensical imagined myth that the natives were from a monstrous genaelogy.

a popular marker facing the Bohol (Mindanao) Sea (Photo: SAPT)

The popular culture, especially mass media has typecasted Siquijor as an eerie-almost-creepy and often an unsafe space in the Philippine archipelago. Seeing the island as a favorite subject in holloween specials (meaning, a period where television shows feature horror stories) left a strong ideological impact on me and my peers: the kasambahay (maid) of a neighbor who was from Siquijor was feared by every kid in my village. The popular culture has naturalized and normalized Siquijor as the embodiment of the Philippine mangkukulam or mambabarang, which almost are synonymous with the mischief, the dangerous, the unruly, the devil, the monster. Sinquijor has become the face of the strange and the stranger in the popular imagination of the Philippine archipelago.

This, perhaps, is the reason why tourism was a major struggle in the island until the late 1990s. And yes, I blame popular culture for damaging its image.

However, it is also popular culture that brought the island-province into the limelight. Today, the island is an emerging tourist destination in the Visayas. Thanks to social media and of course popular figures (i.e. showbiz personalities who happened to have visited the island to do some films or simply to enjoy the island’s tranquility after stressful days of working as public figures) who continuously made the island extremely popular for good or for bad. But in this day of social media, I am convinced these figures have transformed the apparatus from avoidance to utopia.

Growing up, the fear was transformed into a desire for encounter. As I mentioned, it was also popular media that paved the way for me to really hone such desire. My anthropological inkling wanted me to engage with the hilot of the island – to ask them about healing, their processes, their stories including their disappointments, their joys, their fears. In short, there was this desire to “humanize” the community members, which to date, are still represented as strangers – almost pagan-like people in television and in films.

Then I learned from someone who visited the island that he met a group of mambabarang. I remember him commenting “they are good people, they do not want and will never harm anyone. They are like the fortunetellers trying to predict the future.” I wanted to understand why these people were so typecasted as evildoers.

On the other hand, I read somewhere that the island is one of the most Catholicized communities in the nation. The congregations have preserved several Catholic monuments such as century-old churches. I also read somewhere that the islanders pride for their crystal clear water and the amazing coasts of the island composed of fine white and pink sand. I was also told that the island is home to several natural treasures – waterfalls, natural canals, beautiful lakes – several of which untouched and yet to be rediscovered.

In short it is a gem; it is a paradise!

Just recently (in October 2019), I finally stepped foot on the island. My colleagues and I were in Dumaguete City in Negros Oriental for an official/business trip actually. My colleagues and I are really hardworkers: we finished what we had to finish for three days as early as the second day of our trip. In other words, there was no longer anything due on the third day. The fourth day was reserved for a city tour and a tour to Dumaguete’s nearby cities and towns (i.e. Valencia). That said, some of us decided to travel to Siquijor, a 40-minute ferry ride away from the Dumaguete Pier. I would like to emphasize that not everyone joined the trip. The reason: the popular representation attributed to the island and the islanders.

Anyhow, traveling with a colleague who is also very enthusiastic about adventures (and misadventures) made our life easier. In an instant, we had a potential itinerary!

Some highlights:

Highlight 1: St. Francis of Asisi Church

It was our first stop for one obvious reason: it is a hop away from the Pier.

As soon as we got out of the Pier’s gate, this 18th century church welcomed us.

According to reliable sources in the Internet (i.e. Wikipedia, ahem sarcasm alert), Saint Francis De Assisi Church in Siquijor was established by secular priests under Patron San Francisco de Asis on 1 February 1783. The church was administered by secular priests and its construction was initiated by Fray Setten, managed by Fray Alonso de los Delores during the period of 1795-1831.

Our local guide told us that the Church is one of the many well-preserved churches in the island. In terms of size, it is incomparable to the other Baroque churches in the country (i.e. those in Siquijor’s neighboring island-provinces Cebu, Bohol and even Negros). But this does not mean, the Church is not magnificent and marvelous. Its charm is in the fact that about 80% of the structure is still the same structure when it was built three centuries ago. However, its seemingly petite-size is an illusion. For a strange reason, its interior is huge. I was so surprised that it was even bigger than our parish in Barangay Telebastagan in the City of San Fernando, the city where I spent my childhood years. Our local guide also informed us that the kumbento was built to be a hiding place from pirates.

With my colleagues in front of the welcome marker, which is in front of St. Francis of Asisi Church (Photo: SAPT)
In front of St. Francis Church (Photo: SAPT)
The choir loft of St. Francis of Asisi Church (Photo: SAPT)
The belltower (Photo: SAPT)

Highlight 2: The century old balete tree

Mysticism begins!

Balete is often perceived to be a magical, a mystical and a mysterious tree. In popular lore, the balete is commonly associated as the abode of elemental creatures such as duwende (dwarfs), tikbalang (horse-like creature) and kapre (huge monster with tobacco). In Siquijor, there is nothing mystical about the balete tree. But I guess there is something magical about it: it was a tranquil place where people are invited to relax. It was a spa, as a matter of fact.

For a price of PhP 10.00 (USD 0.20/Euro 0,18/GBP 0.15), one can stay for a whole day and have his or her feet massaged by . . . . fishes. Oh yes, you read it correctly – this tranquil haven is also a fish spa. Though I have to admit, the fishes were quite excited to bite our feet (a fancy way of saying they were quite aggressive).

The magical, the mystical, the mysterious century-old Balete tree (Photo: SAPT)
An obligatory pose in front of the tree (Photo: SAPT)
Fish spa for only PhP 10.00 (Photo: SAPT)
Look at the fishes (Photo: SAPT)
Relaxing on the tranquil balete aka spa (Photo: SAPT)

Highlight 3: Cambugahay Falls

Located in Lazi, the falls is what in geography calls a three-tiered waterfalls. It is one of the hidden gems of the province. It is located deep in a forest – literally. We had to trek down a man-made staircase of 135 steps. Perhaps one step is between 9 inches annd 12 inches high. Hence, not really friendly to short people.

As soon as we stepped onto the final step, we were greeted by a paradizzzze (something like a paradise but very mystic and mysterious but still very beautiful; hence, a paradizzze, or whatever).

The smell of barbeque mixed with the fresh water and the breeze of the environment: it was fantastic.

Yes, there were barbeque stalls – but surprisingly, people knew how to clean their surroundings. The vendors themselves were very empowered and responsible. They took our garbage and they segregated the biodegradable from the non-biodegradable.

Did I mention the entrance was free?

The falls became popular to tourists for the swing ropes. For only PhP 50.00 (USD 0.90), swinging is limitless.

One of the most beautiful falls in the Philippines (Photo: SAPT)
Locals enjoying their storytelling (Photo: SAPT)
a tourist enjoing a jump from the swing rope (Photo: SAPT)

The next highlight is the Lazi Church.

Why is it separated from this post? Because it deserves a separate post – nothing more, nothing else, nothing less.

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