The ruins of Bantayan’s watchtowers rose like wraiths of stone from the white sands. Over four centuries ago, the Spaniards built lookouts to guard this Northern Cebu island from Moro marauders, calling it “Bantayan sa Hari” – Watchtower of the King.
In the plaza, St. Peter and St. Paul Church loomed, a fortress in itself, among the evergreen “agoho” trees. Ancient wooden houses with “capiz” shell windows stood incongruently between rows of boxlike modern dwellings. Even the theater survived pirate attacks and World War II bombings.
But I found out, soon enough, that getting to this former bastion was just as hard for today’s backpackers, just as it must have been for the Moors.
To romp for a single day in this retreat touted as the “Next Boracay”, I took a two-day journey beset with trouble from start to finish. The alternative was to pay USD$1,500 for a chartered half-hour flight from Mactan – equivalent to one round trip fare from Manila to the U.S. Mainland.
First, my noon flight from Manila to Cebu was delayed by over an hour. I arrived at Mactan Airport before 3PM. The overland trip by rented van to Hagnayan Port, San Remigio took four hours. From there, it was another two hours ferry ride to Bantayan.
It was a picturesque drive, nonetheless. In the gathering dusk, I watched women balancing coal sacks on their heads while men troop home with their carabaos from the fields. Peddlers of “pintos” – home-made ground corn mush rolled in their husks, ran alongside buses packed to the roof with goods and livestock. Trucks overloaded with raw sugar cane chugged past us, tipping dangerously to one side.
It was dark by the time we reached San Remigio, a coastal town named after the Spanish commander who saved it from a pirate attack. We checked in at San Remigio Beach Club in a P4,400 per night executive suite with a rock-hard bed and equally rock-hard pillows. The shower spurted water in trickles, so the marble bath had a plastic pail and a dented plastic ladle, the kind found in budget hostels. The TV tunes in to a single channel and there was no wi-fi access.
Anyway, we had the hotel’s Cafe Gloria to ourselves at dinner. Their American-sized servings were priced from P150-300 and their calamari was fabulous. But my beefsteak Tagalog was a let-down and the pork in tamarind broth tasted like boiled pork with tomatoes.
Still, the beach view was worth it. I rose at dawn to watch locals clutching plastic bags, combing the exposed sea floor for crabs and shellfish. Boisterous kids tramped in the muck startling flocks of gulls stabbing the sand with their beaks.
We drove to port early to discover that without notice, our ferry left ahead of schedule. With more than two hours to kill, we visited San Juan Nepomuceno Church where they just unearthed an Iron Age burial site complete with 1,000 year old bones and a large carinated clay pot incised with chevron zigzags.
In the shallow square pit behind the church, archaeologists brushed a handful of skeletons still imprisoned in the earth – two males with two burial jars beside their heads, two women with single jars each, plus a child. The adults were 40 to 45 years old when they died but surprisingly, bore no signs of violence. In those times, people often fight to the death over fishing rights.
At last, we reached Bantayan at high noon. I didn’t expect it was that crowded – about 200,000 people crammed in a 7-mile wide by 10-mile long island. Foreigners have set up hotels, bars and restaurants but most residents are fisherfolk. The market is full of all kinds of dried fish, from “dangguit tocino” marinated in spicy sugared sauce, fish skeletons fried like pig skin crisps to stick fish, which tastes like squid when steamed. After all, this is the “Dangguit Capital” and “Egg Basket” of Cebu.
It took just an hour to go from one end of the island to the other. Driving from Santa Fe port down the tree-lined road to Madridejos, we went through poultry farms producing a hundred tons of eggs daily. Little Alaska, they called it, once a rich fishing ground, the site of the country’s first canning factory until it was bombed to rubble in World War II.
On the way back, I paid my respects at the St. Peter and Paul church, one of the oldest in Mindanao and Visayas. Thrice rebuilt, it sheltered people during calamities and war. Moros burned and destroyed the first church in 1600 and the roof, formerly of “tisa” clay, was replaced by stainless steel.
Interestingly, the Pope granted a special dispensation to Bantayan’s parish in 1800, exempting locals from abstaining on holy week because fishermen do not set out to sea for seven days to repent. Henceforth, town folks feast on Good Fridays and serve “lechon”- roast suckling pig. Tourists flock here too for the Lenten procession of life-size icons depicting the Passion of Christ on elaborately-decorated “carrozas”.
When we reached Marlin’s Beach Resort, my best friend and I looked forward to relaxing in our P4,200 per night beachfront twin room. Problem was, it took us six hours to check in despite being pre-booked with a fully-paid deposit.
The staff booked us in an occupied room. Next, they tried to put us in a room with a single bed, made us wait some more while they booted out two guests, dumped them in the hotel next door, transferred another pair to the room they tried to give us earlier and took P1,000 off our rate for wasting our day.
While waiting, we ordered “pancit bihon” at Marlin’s Beach Bar. They served us “miki bihon guisado” instead, along with an anemic mango shake. When we finally moved in our room, it smelled dank and fishy. The bed was rock-hard. The frayed towels and sheets seemed to have been used a thousand times. When I opened the armoire, a foul scent assailed me. I noticed they never even bothered to dispose of the mildewy magazines on our night tables.
At least, they had ample water in the shower, Cable TV and access to the glorious beach. But by the time we managed to emerge from that room, the sun was down and the sea has receded. I can no longer snorkel or dive. Anyway, the best spots are on the other side of the island, 20 minutes away by pump boat, I was informed.
So, I amused myself in the tide pools. I chased crabs and fished out stranded, zebra-patterned starfishes the size of my hand. I flipped one belly up and gleefully watched him retract his mouth while he wiggled his hundreds of tiny feet, trying to go upright. One arm snaked around my fingers, tickling me, as I put him back.
The resorts strung along the coast began turning on their lights while we burrowed in the wet sand. My best friend shrieked and laughed when tiny pincers closed on her toes. Even under the fast-spreading darkness, people tarried on the beach. Children went on building their sand castles.
At dinner, we sauntered over to D’Jungle Mongolian Grill & BBQ, which received rave reviews from Lonely Planet for their P345 per head buffet with 60 dishes. Too bad it wasn’t available.
When we ordered grilled “liempo”, they gave us grilled porkchop instead and it took over an hour to be served. The food was good but the service was lousy, we told Robert, the gracious European owner, who apologized for his absent chef.
In the morning, our pre-ordered breakfast at Marlin’s wasn’t ready and the orders were mixed up, we thought we’ll never make it to our boat. After we settled our bills and checked out, their staff chased us to the port, demanding payment for bottled water we didn’t consume.
It was a hassle to the very last. We booked a RORO (Roll-On, Roll-Off) vessel to load the van we hired to return us to Mactan but they changed the vessel at the last minute, again without notice.
Despite everything, I’ll go back to Bantayan anytime. I haven’t seen all of its old houses yet nor explored its ancient caves. I’d love to hear mass at the coral stone church, join the processions at Lent and feast on roast suckling pig on Good Fridays.
Here, I can write and paint, play with starfishes or explore the reefs. I’d love to try building sandcastles. Maybe I’ll just pack a tent, hunt for ghosts in the watchtowers, or dream all day long, baking on that endless white beach.