Sibonga / Dalaguete / Oslob, Cebu, the Philippines
March 24 – 25, 2018
The Cebu leg of our epic Central Visayas trip was just a layover. I wanted to breeze through it as I was focused on the main event that was Siquijor. But it exceeded the expectations I didn’t even bother to set. Cebu-phile Ki packed it with one highlight after another. In just a couple of days, we experienced the height and depth and breadth of southern Cebu.
Our first stop set the tone of this road trip by bus – the glorious castle church in Sibonga that had, surprisingly, escaped even my Catholic friends’ radar. The Monastery of the Holy Eucharist, better known as Simala Shrine, was built 20 years ago for Marian monks to live in. Apparently, a miraculous crying statue of Mother Mary had other plans, turning the previously remote mountain retreat into a thriving shrine.
Off the Ceres Bus, we hopped on our respective habal-habal (motorbike hitch for hire) to take us up Marian Hills. Bustling commerce lined the road just outside church premises. Beyond the gateway, though, a solemn hush fell on devotees forming a long line to the church hall. The spillover crowd could still hear Mass through loudspeakers broadcasting throughout the castle grounds.
Bare concrete lent an unfinished look to the medieval-inspired architecture. Perhaps it was still a work in progress; there were bamboo scaffolding propped up in some parts. Grey Gothic spires contrasted dramatically against the clear blue sky. The scorching sun made for crisp photography but made us work up a sweat. This was the Cebu I had always imagined: arid and humid. And fervid in her people’s faith.
What was more remarkable than fortress feels were the droves of devotees. Cebu had retained its rep as the bastion of Catholicism since Magellan’s Cross was planted on its soil 500 years ago. Barefooted pilgrims – children, elderly, and everything in between – waited in long queues snaking through halls with directional arrows for a halok (kiss) on the Virgin’s statue, for lighting color-coded candles, and for pamisa (Mass offering). That was Filipino faith in action.
Scandals and rumors of in-fighting among the monks did little to dampen the fervor of the faithful. The prominent display of discarded wheelchairs and letters of gratitude for answered prayers, as if to tell skeptics, “O ye, of little faith,” were the tangible testament of their unwavering confidence in the Church. Many came for healing, evidently.
Faith was the cottage industry in these parts. Raymond, our young habal-habal driver back to the highway doubled as a faith healer. We were off to our next adventure with yet another habal-habal driver Kelly (Kili in Cebuano). Sandwiched between him and selfie king Ki, I held on to dear life as we negotiated the winding mountain roads of Dalaguete. It was my own test of faith.
The cool mountain breeze blew away the heat and sweat of Marian Hills. In contrast, Mantalongon Mountain Range, the limestone spine of southern Cebu, was damp and lush. Vegetable vendors wore jackets; dew fogged up my sunnies. In this narrow island, it only took 20 minutes to go from tracing the coastline to nipping the clouds.
The moderate trek cost us P20 for registration, P5 for a walking stick, and – we hoped – some excess weight to haul our fat asses up rocky trails. We let fellow tourists climb ahead of us to get them out of our age-appropriate pace. Interestingly, we met many local people milling around as we clambered up the slopes. So this was how it was to have an idyllic backyard. I truly envied them.
In snail-paced half an hour, we reached the summit of Osmeña Peak, named after Cebu’s most prominent political clan and also known (or not, actually) as Mt. Labalasan. At just over 1,000 meters, clouds intermittently descended to envelop us in zero visibility. But oh what a sight when clouds lifted. We managed to balance atop precariously jagged rocks to take in the 360-degree view of the sawtooth landscape.
The peaks were akin to Bohol’s Chocolate Hills, albeit highly irregular with higher altitudes. The ruggedly otherworldly terrain was only revealed at this vantage point. There was none of the sense of vastness and volume of these peaks at the lowlands. I had never imagined a mountain range of such scale could even fit into a thin and elongated island like Cebu. The peak straddled the border of Dalaguete and Badian. We were standing on the former to admire the view of the latter.
It was literally breathtaking at the summit. But not so much for the view or even the cardio of climbing. Millennials could not handle being surrounded by pure nature. Some young people we shared the peak with felt the need to defile the mountain fresh air with cigarette smoke! Ugh. The sole purpose of nature for the Instagram generation, it seemed, was for filtered selfies, not to get away from the pollution of their city lives.
Dalaguete was rightfully called the vegetable basket of Cebu. Fresh greens were peddled on the slopes and along the road. On our way back to the highway, we stopped at an outpost, seemingly abandoned, for cable cars transporting produce across a deep valley.
And of course, all roads in southern Cebu led to Oslob, the town blessed to be the preferred hangout of whale sharks, butanding in the vernacular. A sighting never figured in my bucket list. Extremely circumspect around wildlife, I believed we should keep our intrusion into their habitats to a minimum. But I was not about to be the foil to Ki Butalid. How could I resist this meet-and-greet between a Butalid and a butanding?
Also, I could contribute to the town’s economy. More than a third of the whale shark watching fee went to the fishermen-guides, most likely richer than any of us. As faith was Sibonga’s main moneymaker, the butanding was Oslob’s.
We arrived at Oslob late in the evening, but all the arrangements for next day’s early excursion had been handled by our accommodation, Ocean View Lodging House. Owner Baby Laurente provided us with a cozy room with our own shower and a habal-habal ride to and from Tan-awan, the jump-off point for whale shark watching, and Tumalog Falls. All we had to do was wake up and show up.
Call time was 5:30 in the morning for us to catch the whale sharks having breakfast buffet. Only then I realized I didn’t know much about them. Whale or shark – I was not even sure which, only that they could not be both, name notwithstanding. I was schooled only at the holding area which was already teeming with tourists. Before getting onto the boat, I had to rinse off the sunscreen lotion I had applied as it could be an irritant to the whale sharks.
A line of boats, just close to shore, bearing about ten tourists each formed a circle around a group of fishermen tossing shrimp into the water. It was feeding time to attract the whale sharks to hang around as tourists jumped out to swim with and gawk at these leviathans. Strictly no touching! The contrived interaction with wildlife was over in half an hour.
A GoPro, handled by fishermen-guides, could be rented out for underwater photo ops. We ended up with the lousiest shots, no fault of our guide though. I was terrified of the open sea and generally avoided close encounters with wild animals. Gentle giants they were, but an innocent swish of their massive hind fins could send me drowning to the depths.
And yes, they were sharks. But the exclusively pescetarian kind.
If all the butanding left tomorrow, Oslob would be crippled but not entirely paralyzed. There was another natural attraction going for the town – the elegant Tumalog Falls tucked deep in the forest. After that fishy circus, I needed to calm my nerves by soaking in a relatively placid pool. Not a crashing cascade off a steep cliff, Tumalog Falls tumbled gracefully on multi-tiered rock like Chantilly lace.
With only a handful of visitors, soothing serenity fell with every tender trickle into the turquoise lagoon. I was shivering until a foreign woman plunging headlong into the water put me to shame. Ki and I spent the next half an hour sitting against a wall of rock, immersed neck deep in cold water, until groups of tourists started to take over. By then, I waded to the foot of the falls. The graceful falls from afar packed the force of a typhoon underneath it. What it lacked in volume, velocity made up for it.
Such was this little side trip through Cebu where we spent a grand total of three nights and two full days of discoveries but in our own unhurried pace. It was a series of momentary experiences of lasting memories.