Argao / Dalaguete / Oslob / Santander, Cebu, the Philippines
March 24 – 26, 2018
I was smitten by the rustic charm of Boljoon. Back in 2011, Ki and I were on a road trip tracing the southern coast of Cebu. We hopped off the bus in the rain and ran for shelter in the town’s church by the sea. The visit was brief but the fond memories lingered. Seven years later, we found ourselves traversing the same coastline from Cebu City to Liloan Port down south. This time, we gave Boljoon’s neighboring towns a peek by stringing together quick stops at their Spanish-era churches.
Argao Church (Archdiocesan Shrine and Parish of Saint Michael the Archangel)
After a detour to Simala Shrine in the mountains of Sibonga, we kept to the coastal route of Ceres Bus Liner. Ki decided to stop by Argao. We strolled toward a domed bell tower rising above roadside foliage and through the gate leading to a manicured church plaza in bloom with rows of brightly-colored santan. The off-white coral stone of the façade and the greens and pastels of the garden immediately put us in the chill zone. Battle-ready defensive walls and watchtowers stood quietly as a reminder of the distant past when marauders from the sea laid waste Cebu’s coastal towns.
These days, only the sea itself posed a threat to the shore. A puddled path by the gate led us to a narrow opening to the turbulent Cebu Strait beyond. Crashing waves were battering the rock-and-concrete seawall relentlessly even in such fine weather. It seemed that the sea was stubbornly claiming the land for itself.
Dalaguete Church (San Guillermo de Aquitania Parish Church)
An afternoon hike up Osmeña Peak in Dalaguete called for another chill time. We found the town church similar in style with the one in Argao. The marked difference was how it squarely faced the sea. Warriors from the waters were welcomed by a bronze cannon cocked seaward, presently on display under a watchtower. This surviving weapon was one of many that comprised the town’s defense system. Clearly, the Spaniards meant war in protecting their colonial interests in Cebu from Muslim raiders. The Church did as much conquering as converting, slaying as saving.
The sandy strip of seawall between church and strait served as a wide promenade. Of course, foodie Filipinos could not resist turning it into a bustling al fresco dining area of Dalaguete Foodlane by the Seawall. Stalls selling grilled dishes triggered our hunger pangs. We sat down for an early dinner among townsfolk looking out to Cebu Strait. It was an immersive an experience we could have for an unplanned stop.
Oslob Church (Parish Church of the Immaculate Conception)
Over at the next town, an early morning date with whale sharks similarly justified some downtime. Oslob should not only be known for the gentle giants that hang out in the town’s waters. Its historical heritage was definitely worthy of touristic attention as well. We came in time to hear Mass at Oslob Church and tried to blend in among local churchgoers. It was a double novelty for a non-Catholic, non-Cebuano like me. Liturgical music was sung and the priest’s homily spoken in the local language.
Our post-Mass promenade in front of the church ended up at the coral walls of the Old Spanish Cuartel. We assumed it was Oslob’s little Intramuros, the ruins of the old town. Actually, it was built as barracks for Spanish soldiers or guardia civil left unfinished at the end of Spanish occupation in 1898.
What lay in ruins was the Oslob Baluarte built in 1788, one of seven that dotted the town’s coastline. Only half its crenelated wall remained standing in a semi-circle near the shore. With a height of seven meters, the lantawan (Cebuano for lookout) provided a vantage point for patrolling guards to observe the sea beyond. Many such baluartes could be found throughout Cebu and in other provinces, but none was as historic as this one. It bore witness to the decisive battle in 1813 that permanently kept Moro pirates at bay.
We finally came face-to-face with Fray Julian Bermejo. His likeness was looking out to sea with a raised cross as he did in life. The Spanish warrior priest was first introduced to us in 2011 by a Boljoon heritage conservationist who schooled us on the colonial history of Cebu. Seven years later, I fact-checked his historical narrative with the commemorative plaque under Bermejo’s statue:
Fr. Julian Bermejo (1777 – 1851)
Hailed by Cebuanos as “El Parroco Capitan” for his courage and military prowess, Fr. Julian Bermejo was responsible in devising a strong and effective coastal defense system (baluartes) made of coral stone and lime mortar that served as lookout stations in detecting the coming of Moro pirate ships. Of the estimated forty baluartes (watchtowers) that were built on the shorelines of Carcar all the way to Santander, twelve of them built in Oslob. These twelve watchtowers are still existing today. Fr. Bermejo fought and won many wars. His biggest achievement was the victory over Goranding (orandin) in a bloody skirmish in Sumilon Island. An epic story that persists to this day, the victory in this legendary battle of Sumilon was reportedly so decisive that it ultimately put an end to Moro attacks in 1813.
In 1830, Fr. Bermejo began the construction of the Immaculate Conception Parish Church of Oslob. He supervised and completed the construction of the church on January 8, 1847. On January 1, 1848, Bermejo, the exemplary servant of God and the exceptional military commander who made inestimable contribution to the lives of the people of Cebu and neighboring provinces, ended his stint as parish priest of Boljoon. He died in the Monasterio del Santo Niño (now Basilica del Santo Niño) on April 30, 1851 at the age of 74.
Boljoon’s lay historian passed the fact-checking. The wordy tribute to Fr. Bermejo read like an Old Testament account rife with wars waged in the name of God. Perhaps I didn’t have to go as far back as biblical times.
Nueva Caceres Church (St. Joseph Parish Church)
A smaller church intrigued Ki enough to get us into a tricycle to another barangay, Nueva Caceres. The façade looked the worse for wear, but there was no self-consciousness in wearing its age on its sleeves. Fr. Bermejo, for some reason, designed the parish church in a simpler style without carved embellishments. Perhaps it was a nod to the carpenter saint the church was named after. A children’s moving-up ceremony was ongoing when we peeked into the main door. On the last pew, a boy was kneeling facing backwards oblivious to the priest’s prayer. He was simply enjoying his stick of bananacue.
We soon left the kids to their own devices and explored the church grounds. There was none of Oslob Church’s historical relics. Instead, we found a banana plantation at the back and fishing boats parked aground in front. The barangay‘s charm lay in its lack of tourist attractions.
ARC Christian Camp and Hostel
Two days’ worth of town-hopping our way down the eastern coastline of Cebu concluded at the southernmost town. The original plan was merely to pass through Santander for its port served by ro-ro ships sailing to neighboring Siquijor and Negros Oriental, our destination. Thanks to our chill pace, we arrived too late in the afternoon and decided to spend the night in town.
The tricycle driver took us to the nearest accommodations from the port. We entered a compound of several cottages spread over a hectare or so of grassy space dotted with trees. A teepee tent had been set up in front of the main house. The owner, Gilbert Bureros, welcomed us to Alvin Ray Carlson (ARC) Christian Camp. After our visita iglesia of sorts, we ended up in a Protestant campground. Along with partners from Bacolod (my hometown), Gilbert developed this inherited land into a spiritual and physical refuge for Christian young people.
The sleeping quarters were undergoing various stages of renovation, but we insisted on just an overnight stay. Gilbert assigned us to a modest bungalow with no A/C and no sink faucet installed in the bedroom and bathroom, respectively, yet. We kept the fan on at night and brushed our teeth in the kitchen. These small inconveniences were more than made up for by the porch overlooking the long and narrow beach. The waters were invitingly calm and crystal clear, a far cry from the agitated waves just a few kilometers north. We jumped in despite the sight of the port in the distance. By morning, Gilbert invited us to have breakfast at the main house. The warm hospitality and a bit of roughing it out made for an authentic youth camp experience indeed.
We couldn’t have planned it as perfectly. Staying the night at Santander was nothing less than a blessing to cap this rather religious road trip. We took our time in immersing in the rustic charm of Cebu towns, one thing that we were unable to do in Boljoon years back. It also allowed for a stress-free, leisurely walk to Liloan Port to board a Maayo Shipping ro-ro. We were so chill we almost missed our ro-ro to Tampi, Negros Oriental again. But that was how Ki and I rolled.