THE Loch Ness Monster, also known as Nessie, though accepted as a myth, has been lingering in the minds of many for years.
Despite numerous attempts of settling this controversy, there are still those who believe that magnificent creatures like Nessie may be living beneath the wide cover of lakes, trenches and the deep blue sea, and I, for one, am certain, that I’ve seen one of Nessie’s cousins while visiting the islands of Camotes.
Located a few kilometers away from Cebu is the Lost Horizon in the South, also known as the province of Camotes. It is composed of four islands, namely, Pacijan, Tulang Diot, Poro and Ponson. Tulang Diot is the smallest island located near the island of Pacijan. Diot means “small” in the local dialect.
The silence of Camotes islands is complemented by the beautiful hum of the wind that blows through it. Clothed with mystery and enchanting stories, the island is truly a synonym of the word “beauty.”
This trip entailed a lot of firsts for me. It was the first time I was allowed to travel on my own. It was my first time to join the Provincial Government’s Suroy Suroy Sugbo program. It was my first time to ride a ferry. But it was not my first visit to Camotes.
As I walked to the gate to wait for the arrival of the Ocean Jet that was going to take us there, I was caught in a sea of families and lovers waiting for the same boat. Apparently, a lot of people enjoy the yearly tour organized by Cebu’s Provincial Government. Every year, tours to four destinations are arranged, and during the month of April, Camotes takes its turn. I squeezed myself between seats just to be able to settle in, for my baggage was weighing me down.
The trip was two hours long, and despite the fact that the space was air-conditioned, all of us were sweating and couldn’t wait to take a dip into the blue waters of Camotes.
I was seated in the middle of the boat, trying to prevent my empty stomach from emptying itself further, because despite the fact that the waves were calm, my vertigo couldn’t handle the swaying of the fast ferry from time to time. The moment we docked at the wharf of Poro island, all the passengers stood up and immediately lifted their packs. As we emerged out of the ferry, banderitas hung above our heads and colors of red and yellow decorated the place. The tourists were greeted by a band as it played merry tunes and a red carpet was rolled out for people to walk on. Wooden necklaces were placed upon every person’s neck by local government unit (LGU) staff, welcoming tourists to their municipality. Unlike the silent and mysterious place I had previously known, Camotes was now more festive than I expected.
Immediately after that, we were delivered by two Ceres buses towards the first tourist destination, Buho Rock Resort. This resort is known for its nauseatingly high cliff diving activity involving a breath taking 40- to 50-foot cliff and deep blue waters. Those brave enough to jump off this cliff will feel as if they’re jumping off a five-storey building.
At the resort, tourists were greeted with a buffet for lunch, which included different kinds of fresh seafood, and of course, not to be forgotten during celebrations, Cebu’s very own lechon. My motion sickness was cured after taking a sip of buko juice that was prepared by the locals.
While the tourists were eating and taking pictures from the cliffs of Buho Rock, various songs and dances were presented to further entertain the visitors. One dance that caught my attention was the Kuracha, performed by two beautiful old ladies and a charming old man. It was a dance that showed a love triangle, where the two ladies danced for the love of the man. He circled the ladies, and in the end, chose the one who wore red, the one who caught his heart with her dance. It was thrilling, and at the same time enchanting, to see a cultural gem preserved in the Poro island of Camotes.
The next stop was Bukilat Cave, the most popular cave among the hundreds in Camotes. As everyone excitedly set foot near the cave, we were declined entrance, because before entering the cave, a ritual needed to be observed.
It is believed by locals living near the cave that enchanted beings, also known as dili ingon nato, inhabit it. As the primary dwellers of the cave, locals believe that these beings have the right to allow or ban anyone from entering Bukilat. To ask permission, an uncooked egg of a manok bisaya, or a local chicken, is placed inside a bowl beside a burning coconut shell. Within a few minutes, a person must be able to make the egg stand upright. If it does, one has permission to enter the cave.
The ritual was mandatory, it is one of the many things that gives Camotes its identity, a place clothed in stories and folklore, that are accepted as truth by its inhabitants. Before we entered the cave, we were told to break into groups around the gate to witness the ritual. With a little bit of difficulty, we were finally given the permission to enter the gates of Bukilat.
Inside the cave many mythical creatures greeted us, most of them were locals dressed up as capres, mermaids, aswangs and diwatas. The cave is known for its healing water that is slightly salty, for it is where the ocean meets the river. During low tide, the cave keeps a reserve of freezing cold water that has been said to heal any kind of illness. Many people visit the cave and take a little bit of the water with them back to their own cities.
The cave was wide, with a few dark places and holes, where sunlight ironically still managed to pour through. As it was hot outside the cave, we were again served buko juice, the islands of Camotes are abundantly covered with coconut trees.
After, we headed towards the Sto. Niño Parish Church of Tudela, still located within the island of Poro. The bus ride was full of fun facts. A question and answer portion took place, and passengers who were able to answer a question won a Poro delicacy: cassava cookies.
Perhaps the most intriguing piece of trivia is the controversy behind Sitio Mactang in Camotes. It has been said that the battle between Lapu Lapu and Magellan actually happened on the historical beaches of Mactang, where artifacts and swords have been dug up, but this still continues to be a debatable issue.
The Sto. Niño Parish Church of Tudela is the oldest church on the island, it was created in 1847 and was built from egg whites and pebbles. Upon arriving on the grounds of the church, the tourists were introduced to the healing ritual known as patunob sa Santo Niño, where one kneels in front of a big statue of the Sto. Niño, and a smaller statue is made to walk on the affected parts of the person.
In the evening, tourists dined together in a white-themed beach party and danced while lights flickered along the wide shores of Santiago White Beach. The beach is known for its fine white sand and clear blue water. Despite the merriment, the upbeat tunes and the disco lights prepared by the LGU, the true identity of the island continued to unveil itself, as one looked towards the skies decorated abundantly with stars that are most visible during the rotational brownouts in the island of Pacijan. As the music stopped playing and the lights went out, nothing else made noise, save for the visitors, who were eager to create happy moments on the island.
The second day was the last tour, and the tourists were brought to the most famous attraction on the island. Lake Danao was the visit’s highlight, and true enough, tourists were amazed at how wide the basin of water really was. The lake is known as the largest lake in all of Visayas, the 30-minute tour was not enough time to go around the lake.
Also called Lover’s Lake, Lake Danao has become famous for its origin story. Husband and wife Isyong and Isyang were cursed by the heavens because of their constant bickering. They were further separated from each other when a lake formed around them, and they turned into the two islets in the middle of the lake known as the crocodile island and the snake island.
Ironically, the murky waters of the lake, an abundant source of tilapia and wild ducks, clearly reflect what the island has witnessed over a hundred years as a developing province of Cebu.
“Kahinumdom pa ko atung time na wala pa ni tanan, life was very simple back then. Fishing and farming was enough for the family sa una. Now, medyo di na gyud siya pariha ka stable ang pamilya. Pero naa sad tay mga bag-o na livelihood because of tourism. Now, fishing and farming can no longer sustain the family alone, for the fisherfolk who used to live here near the lake. So another livelihood that they ventured into is suli-suli weaving. Maayo na karun mahal napud ang suli-suli,” said Paul Dimco, 43-year-old lumad of Camotes who works as the manager of CTEC (Community Trainings and Employment Coordinator) and Peso (Philippine Employment Service Office) in Camotes.
Suli-suli is the grass that grows beneath the murky waters of the lake. People living around the lake gather them and weave them into bags. Now, aside from suli-suli weaving, fishing and farming, inhabitants near Lake Danao live off of the rising tourism in Camotes, “Suroy Suroy Sugbo has been a very effective tool in boosting the tourism of San Francsico,” said Paul.
Lunch was served in Lake Danao Park where another cultural dance was performed. Pan Sak Sila Ley, derived from T’boli folklore, is employed as a ritual to drive away evil spirits for good harvest. As the livelihood of people living around the lake was once focused mainly on fishing and farming, the dance has been performed by inhabitants for years to ensure a good harvest.
Keep it simple
As the day closed, another party was held for visitors, who were now spending the last day of their tour in Camotes. Mangodlong Rock Resort was host to a buffet dinner and a Hawaiian-themed luau. Tourists happily obliged. Ladies wore flowery dresses that flowed with the mysterious humming of the wind. Flowers as accessories added to the fragrant smell of the sea breeze. As the sky grew darker and the songs grew louder, people could not help but look back at the tour around islands that seemed to have more stories in them than what was actually shown.
On the trip back to the city of Cebu, while riding the waves back to my howetown, it was then that I realized that I had actually visited one of the cousins of Nessie.
The whole Camotes looks like a coral that developed over time. The four islands form a seemingly submerged lizard. The island of Pacijan is its head, which also leads in development among the four islands. The guitar-shaped Lake Danao is its eyes, which has been witness to the change of commerce, industry and the way of life of many people living in Camotes. The island of Ponson is its little tail.
I believe a few years ago, as it rested a few kilometers away from the island of Cebu, tired and weary of running and hiding from people who wanted to expose its true identity, it settled and became a haven and sanctuary for many creatures.
“We have everything here, Cebu has everything to offer a tourist. If you like swimming, we have the best pristine white- sand beaches, we have a very rich culture, we have so many heritage structures and then now, slowly making noise are our adventure activities like canyoneering and whale watching. Cebu is different because in Cebu, we have practically everything,” said Mary Grace Paulino, Provincial Tourism Officer of the province of Cebu.
True enough, Cebu has everything, maybe even the Loch Ness Monster itself. The islands of Camotes will continue to have their identity through the mysteries, theories and stories that cloak pristine beaches, cliffs and caves that offer a getaway from the hustle and bustle of the busy city life.
“We would be glad for some improvements, but not for over development. It would be much better if it is kept as it is. We should keep it as it is so that there’s still a place where people could come if they get stressed with city life,” said Paul.