Siquijor: Addicted to the Island of Fire

I have always wanted to visit Siquijor. The island and everything it represents has captivated my imagination since childhood. Siquijor has traditionally been known as a mystical island, a place where arcane beliefs and practices hold court but more and more, it is becoming well known because of a far simpler reason — the beauty of its beaches. The Spanish dubbed it “La Isla del Fuego,” after, depending on who you talk to, the eerie glow that pervaded the island when they first visited it, the fire trees, or the fireflies that used to abound therein.

When I stepped out of the ferry from Dumaguete, however, I saw none of the reasons that may have led to Siquijor being called the Island of Fire. The first thing I saw from the tiny port was something — and I’m about to use a cliché only because it is true — out of a postcard. I think my jaw dropped to the ground and as I was picking it up, my mind followed with a thought that would echo all throughout my stay in Siquijor: I want to live here.

My photographer and I were met at the pier by Joy Eriksson of Coco Grove Beach Resort in the town of San Juan. Wreaths of frangipani were placed around our necks and we were ushered into a festive air-conditioned jeep and brought to Coco Grove, where we were welcomed with fresh coconut juice (still in the coconut) while we checked in. We were also welcomed by Mackie, the resort’s Macaw parrot that Coco Grove owner Mike Butler rescued from a pet store in Cartimart. Mike is a charming, happy-go-lucky man who readily told us about how he and his wife Honey have made Siquijor their home.

“We used to come here for holiday (in the ’80s) and we fell in love with the place… and I sold my company in Australia almost 10 years ago, and we brought our family here and we lived here permanently,” he says.

As our luggage were being delivered to our Luxury Villa IV, Joy showed us the resort’s other types of accommodation via the Executive Special, which opens up onto a spacious veranda. It’s a cozy pick for a honeymooning couple, yet big enough to accommodate a small family, as it contains modern ‘distractions’ like a flat screen TV with cable to keep the little ones occupied. We were led to our villa, a loft-type residence with a double bed on the first floor and two single beds on the second. The TV and bathroom are located on the ground floor, which also has access to the veranda. Each floor has its own lounge area though, a big plus for big groups. There are tables and chairs for card games and conversations outside the rooms as well. The bathroom is huge — about the size of the villa’s second floor — and contains, aside from separate shower and bathroom stalls, a personal bathtub jacuzzi.

“We have a lot of divers come here because the diving around the area is brilliant. We’re very close to Apo Island which is a brilliant place to dive. Around Siquijor itself has wonderful dive spots,” Mike had told us earlier. “We found Apo Island by mistake in 1987, 1988. We thought what a beautiful little island. We didn’t realize that the diving spots there are some of the best in the world. We leased a property there and now we built a resort that has ten cottages.”

Before dinner, my photographer and I set sail on one of the resort’s two Hobie Cats. There was a light but strong breeze, enabling the small sailboat to carry us almost to the next island. Coco Grove is by the Mindanao Sea, also fronting the Tubod Marine Sanctuary. The sea was calm, the water was so clear you could see to the bottom, even in the deeper areas.

Afterwards, we had dinner at Sunset Restaurant, a casual dining area that serves Asian and European specialties, served in a structure reminiscent of a beach shack fronting the sea. This was also where we would be having our breakfast during our stay. For dinner, I had a green salad and kinilaw, the local version of cerviche — raw fish marinated in a mixture of vinegar, coconut milk, chili, ginger and onions. The fish was very fresh, the sauce and spices adding zing to the tender meat.

Days end early in the province, so there was nothing to do after dinner except go to bed, as we had a hectic day to prepare for. Not that the place was boring — far from it. We could see groups of travelers conversing amongst themselves, playing card games and drinking beer. Beer, by the way, is incredibly cheap in the resort. A bottle of local light beer costing less than it normally would in, say Makati or Singapore.

Exploring the Island of Fire

Siquijor is a small island and most of its sights can be seen in one day. This is exactly what we did as we set off for our first stop — a four century-old Balete (Banyan) Tree. The tree is huge, towering over other trees in the area, its long, thick vines hanging down like tentacles on a trunk that needs ten people to encircle it. Beneath it runs a brook of flowing fresh water that our guide Crisel Ogtis says people still swim and wash clothes in. She also mentioned that the old folks believed that the tree used to contain a doorway that leads to a different realm. The most amazing thing for me was that a tree could last this long in a country where people tend to take nature for granted. Its survival, I think, is part of its enchantment and is also a testament to the people of Siquijor’s respect for Mother Nature.

Next, we visited St. Isidore de Labrador Church in the town of Lazi and across it, the convent of the same name. The church was built by the Spanish in 1884 and is still a big part of the community’s life. The outside of the church is made with light pinkish coral bricks. The convent is now a museum, and its grounds now house a private school as well. The museum is simple. Housed in the equivalent of two rooms in the convent’s upper floor, one can see relics from the island’s religious past, from vestments that the priest used to wear to antique chalices used for Holy Communion.

Our next stop was Cambugahay Water Falls, which was also in Lazi. This was where the tour moved from casual tourism to one with a more adventurous streak. The Cambugahay Falls, I hear, are beautiful. Five waterfalls all feeding the same stream, tall enough to inspire awe but not so tall that daredevils haven’t jumped off them (jumping from the falls, by the way, is not advised). It is, however, only accessible via some rough-hewn stairs cut out from the surrounding hill, making it inaccessible to people with even the slightest physical disability such as myself. I tried going down the steep, slippery (it had just rained) slope when I decided that my life was more important than my wanderlust and headed back to the jeep, enviously watching local townspeople zip past me on their way to a good swim.

If I couldn’t even get to the falls, what were my chances of exploring Cantabon Cave in Siquijor town, the most famous of the island’s 45 caves. People say it is a beautiful natural wonder, with limpid pools and awesome stalactites and stalagmites. And I was right, as the path that led to the cave was even steeper than the one that led to the falls. The rains had made the path slippery, so we all decided that it would be better to save the spelunking for another day. Here’s a tip, since there are no directions posted at the start of the path: if you plan to explore Cantabon Cave, you first have to go to the Cantabon Barangay Hall located just a few meters past the cave, where you have to pay a tour fee of Php500 for the first three people and Php100 for every succeeding person. This grants you access to the cave along with a tour guide, as well as the rent of a helmet and a flashlight. According to Arlene Tobias, one of the guides, people of all ages have explored Cantabon Cave, the youngest being about three years old and the oldest around 71. The cave is 300 meters long and takes about three hours to traverse back and forth. Crisel added that the name Cantabon came from a Bisaya (the dialect they speak in Siquijor) word which mean “to cover.”

We then proceeded to Mt. Bandilaan which, at 557 feet above sea level, makes it Siquijor’s highest peak. It is coincidentally located at the center of the island. We passed through a lush, man-made forest and had lunch by the path that led to the viewing tower where one can get a beautiful view of Siquijor and the surrounding islands of Negros, Cebu and Bohol. Unfortunately, according to my photographer, whom I sent up because again, it was too steep for someone with a physical disability because the tower is old and rusty and might be dangerous if climbed. The view was great though. Also located at the peak are the three crosses that mark the end of Mt. Bandilaan’s Stations of the Cross, way markers that illustrate the suffering of Jesus Christ before his crucifixion. Crisel says that the mountain gets really crowded during Holy Week, when people from all over the island drop by to celebrate Jesus’s resurrection. There is also a butterfly farm located on the mountain, but the rain prevented us from visiting it. According to Crisel, the now privately owned farm contains many species of butterflies that are endemic to Siquijor.

While we were in Siquijor town (which is also the provincial capital), we dropped by St. Francis of Assisi church, the island’s oldest house of worship, and the island’s only church until other parishes grew around it. Beside it is a bell tower that was used to warn the town when danger lurked nearby.

On the way back to Coco Grove, we passed by Capilay Spring Park in San Juan town, a public swimming pool fed by Capilay Spring. Capilay Spring Park is essentially a cement pool structure built around a rushing river so that the water in it is continually flowing. It is, for lack of a better word, genius. This was only the second time I had come across something like this, the first time being in Dumaguete where I was blown out of my mind.

Diver’s Paradise

At the resort, we got to talking with Ronald Van de Vooren, Coco Grove’s Dive Master and Instructor, who has 22 years diving experience consisting of 3800 dives, 2900 of them here in the Philippines.

Starting November, he is also in charge of Coco Gorve’s Dive Center. Ronald has been in the Philippines for 12 years, the last five of those spent in Coco Grove. He is the author of the bestselling Philippine Diving which has sold over 5000 copies and is currently working on a volume that concentrates on Siquijor.

“Siquijor has 39 dive sites and 12 marine sanctuaries” he says. “(We have) a nice variation in bottom compositions, like walls for slope dives and very nice shoal dives. The best dive site of Siquijor is called Takot shoal. It’s my personal favorite. It has an aquarium feeling and a nice bottom composition. It’s an advanced dive site, can have some currents and also affords divers the possibility of seeing special marine life like big mouth macarels and tunas and blue fin travellis.”

Coco Grove is a veritable paradise for divers and would-be divers. “(We offer) the full range of diving education for PADI and NAUI. We also offer day trips, safaris to Apo Island, for example. For live aboard, we don’t have yet. We are planning to do safaris to Tubbataha,” Ronald says.

The resort also has other water activities. “We have two Hobie Cats. We have kayaks, paddle boards, wind surfers, banana boats, and small speedboats for snorkeling trips,” Ronald says. “We have a beautiful sanctuary right in front of the diving center for scuba diving and wind surfing.”

Ronald says that there are big plans for the dive center, including free marine biology seminars for guests and facilities for camera equipment.

Goodbye, beautiful island

Just as the sun set, my photographer and I enjoyed a few alcoholic drinks (we recommend the Mango Caliente — mango slush with a kick — and Death by Chocolate, which is essentially a spiked shake) by the beach before heading to Salamandas, the resort’s more formal dining area (formal being a relative word in the tropics), where Joy presented us with a feast. First, we had Bacon Wrapped Scallops, the bacon’s meaty fat infusing the plump shellfish. This was followed by imported Australian Steak in Peppercorn Sauce Served with Italina Potato Wedges and Buttered Vegetables, the meat served medium well, retaining its soft juiciness. The Chicken Piccana with Lyonaise Poatao and Buttered Green Beans are sure to be enjoyed by picky children, as what tot can resist the combination of breaded chicken and fried potato? I also liked the Grilled Prawns in garlic Lemon Butter Sauce served with Mashed Potato and Buttered Vegetable, the prawns big and fresh and lovely to eat by the seaside. While we dined, we were serenaded by the Coco Girls, part of the resort’s Filipino-themed entertainment. The servings were big enough that we were full even before dessert arrived, but that didn’t stop us from devouring the Chocolate Mousee, Mango Delight and Mango and Chocolate Bavarios, the latter mango pudding layered with chocolate mouse and by far our favorite.

We were leaving for Manila the next day, going back via ferry to Dumaguete then flying to NAIA. I could see what about Siquijor made Mike Butler fall in love with it in 1986, what made him trade a successful life in Australia for a laid back lifestyle in an island where, when he used to vacation there, had only two hours of electricity a day. “I’m enjoying myself. I like creating things. We now have 41 cottages and we’re building more at the moment. We’re building a conference center,” he says.

Coco Grove and the island of Siquijor has amassed quite a following over the years, all due to the island’s beautiful sunsets, calm beaches and lush greenery. “The people here like it a little bit quieter, a little more laid back, enjoy the water, enjoy the sound of the geckos. You can get a bit of space for yourself if you’ve sort of a stressful job or whatever and need to get out, this is the place to be really,” MIke says. “For people with young children as well, this is a nice place because of the long white stretch of beach. People here are very friendly.”

It was hard to say goodbye to Siquijor. After only two days on the island, I had resolved to return and, if I was lucky enough, make it my home.