Siquijor / Lazi / Maria / Enrique Villanueva / San Juan, Siquijor, the Philippines
March 27 – 29, 2018
So near yet so far. Such was Siquijor from Ki’s hometown in Negros. During his walks along Dumaguete’s famous seafront boulevard, he wondered about the faint strip of land on the horizon. Somehow, it took decades for that curiosity to make the quantum leap to urgency. And it took a leap of faith for me to board a glorified banca run by GL Shipping Lines. The short distance between Dumaguete and Siquijor stretched to the longest hour in choppy seas.
All windows were rolled up to keep sprays of seawater out. We didn’t rock the boat; the boat rocked us as it skimmed over crashing waves. A nauseated passenger attempted to get some air in and was promptly slapped on the face by the spiteful sea.
On land, I had to make a leap of faith once more as I hopped on the back of Ki’s rented motorbike (P300 per day, gas not included), Siquijor’s preferred mode of transportation in the absence of reliable public bus or jeepney service. None of us had driven a motorbike, but Ki paid for an hour’s practice back in Manila. I donned my lopsided helmet, crossed my fingers, and hoped for the best.
Blind without a map on hand, we traveled inland following a long and empty road through the forest. There were fewer and fewer bikes coming from the opposite direction. It turned out we were lost in the right way; the country road led us to the famous enchanted balete tree in Lazi.
This particular species of fig had a bad rap. It was traditionally believed to be the preferred dwelling place of mythical creatures, big (kapre or ogre) and small (duwende or elf). Even in the city, the tree inspired supernatural tales (read: Balete Drive in New Manila). Considering this was in the mystical island of Siquijor, it was a double whammy in the creepy meter.
But it was a triple whammy. This ancient balete tree in Lazi, said to be the oldest in the island at 400 years old, had a spring gushing out of its base. Enterprising locals made a pool out of it and eventually turned it into a fish spa. Visitors dropped in to dip their feet for fish to nibble on their dead skin. Enchantment turned to entertainment. We just gulped a can of cola for sugar rush and took off.
It didn’t take long for us to realize all roads in Siquijor led to Salagdoong Beach Resort in the next town, Maria. Consistently the word-of-mouth choice, the resort was the top suggestion of everyone we asked. That rep piqued our curiosity despite its location at the remote side of the island.
Off the highway, we drove through a narrow tree-canopied road toward the coast. Though a welcome respite from our sun-baked bike ride, the forest was apparently man-made, mostly consisting of a dominant non-native species – mahogany. I had misgivings about the ecological balance it supposedly maintained. It was a foreshadowing.
Surprised by the entrance fee charged at the resort’s gate, we explored the premises to get our money’s worth. A cute crescent cove, while Instagram-ready, was practically the only sanded area. Another cove was completely paved with concrete steps where a few – rather pitiful – foreign tourists sunbathed on. The multi-level hotel and swimming pool would further isolate us from nature. We thought: Why did we bother going all the way to Siquijor to swim in a pool and walk on concrete?
With a sigh of disappointment, we asked a lifeguard if he knew of smaller, less developed resorts in the area. He pointed at a distant yet visible shoreline where we would find Oceanview Farm & Cottages. The only access was through a dirt road, but we wanted raw and local. We finally found our little cottage by the sea. As in most of Maria, access to the beach was some steps down a cliff.
None of the diversions in Salagdoong were necessary: no restaurant, no water sports facilities, no crowds, no noise, no WiFi. There was hardly a trace of the city we were escaping from, but we had everything we came for – some creature comforts and a whole lot of nature: clear shallow water, fine sand, sea breeze, the heaving surf, the chirp of crickets at night, and the crow of cocks come morning.
The main draw was the kilometers-long beach that we had all to ourselves. We shared our sandy strip only with local people: fishermen drying out their catch at the rocky shallows early the next morning, the resort’s girl Friday coming down to buy fresh fish, an elderly lady going to market with a big bayong in tow. At one point, we came across two blondes looking for snorkeling sites. They stood out only because they were the only foreigners at the beach.
Further on, we saw a pair of wooden rocking chairs, empty and just mildly dusty, arranged to face the sea. A couple seemed to have sat on them recently; however, like the beach, the hut nearby seemed abandoned. With Goldilocks-slash-ninja moves, we tried them for size. Life couldn’t get any better than rocking to the rhythm of the surf in a lonely beach. Ah, the sweet foretaste of retirement.
Somehow, I never knew the name of this beach. Perhaps it wanted to be anonymous, a secret from the maddening crowd.
The far end bordered Olang Marine Sanctuary, a 21-hectare ecological project to restore live hard coral cover and fish habitat decimated by nature (typhoons) and human activity (overfishing). We stopped short of entering the sanctuary itself. Instead, we waded through a small grove of newly-planted mangrove.
I had known mangroves to be rich ecosystems harboring various species, marine and amphibious. For that reason I wouldn’t put myself in such close proximity. The clear water, though, revealed no life forms lurking within the capillary network of roots.
Water was still knee-deep beyond the sea forest. Protruding sculpted rocks offered shade and resting places between snorkeling sessions. Though the rehabilitated area was apparently safe and immaculate for tourism, I still hoped it would soon be inhabited by displaced species. It was meant to be a wildlife habitat, after all.
After our little coastal exploration, we bade goodbye to our gracious host at Oceanview and continued our way to circumnavigate the island. The scorching mid-day sun compelled us to seek solace at the recently-upgraded Elena’s Bakery and Pasalubong Center in the town of Enrique Villanueva. We settled at the breezy balcony overlooking mangroves and fish pens.
Our eyes widened at the biggest otap (an oval-shaped biscuit) we had ever seen, large enough to eclipse half my face. Not as sweet nor as crumbly as the original Cebuano, it was perfect to go with my coffee and as my pasalubong.
We drove through the towns of Larena, Siquijor, and Lazi in search of digs for our final night, but none met our preference for beachfront. Our search led us back to San Juan, effectively the resort town of Siquijor. Despite the rows of coastal resorts at Paliton Beach, arguably the island’s most photogenic, Tubod Riverside Guesthouse won us over with its yellow bungalow perched on a cliff overlooking the sea.
Taking on the hostess-with-the-mostest role was a dog named Evita. She would follow us around when we went outside, even without the incentive of treats. A pat and a belly rub were enough compensation for her companionship.
We had our last meal at Sagaray Store, a seaside carinderia that served local dishes, such as tahore (dark beans similar to my favorite hometown dish, kadios) and pirit (local mackerel) with bones tender enough to be eaten along with its flesh. This carinderia didn’t solely cater to locals. We chanced on a white guy demolishing a plate of pirit before we did.
After three full days, we had come full circle, literally with our trusty pink motorbike. We had traced the circumferential highway of cookie-shaped Siquijor and it was time to return it to the rental shop near Siquijor Port.
It was mostly a good ride, although Ki had to ask me time and again if I had dozed off at the back. Truth was, I just didn’t make a peep so as not to distract a newbie biker. We did get into scrapes – losing our balance on a mountain road, the fuel tank singeing Ki’s leg, the bike conking out on our second day. We came out of it in one piece; that was all that mattered.
This time we took Montenegro Shipping Lines’ ro-ro. We figured that a larger ship would not be so much at the mercy of choppy seas. Looking out to Siquijor from the top deck, I caught sight of a man snorkeling under the pier. Even at the port, the waters of Siquijor looked crystal green. I made a wish that overdevelopment would not spoil it.