Few travellers make it to the curious island of Culion, around two hours south of Coron Town by boat, once the world’s largest leper colony and a place that inspired fear and often, revulsion. Today the leper colony has all but been erased, but some haunting monuments of the island’s past remain, as well as some totally untouched beaches you’ll have to yourself. Like Busuanga, the island is actually quite large and undeveloped, but the main attractions lie in the pretty little capital, Culion Town.
The approach to Culion Town is dominated by the striking coral-walled La Inmaculada Concepcion Church. The church was substantially rebuilt in 1933 on the site of an older fortified Spanish chapel, completed in 1740. Beside the church is the old lighthouse, with tremendous views north to Coron Town. The Culion Museum inside the hospital compound, housed in the former leprosy research lab built in 1930, details the history of the colony and contains medical relics and photographs from the turn of the last century. The museum is one of the most intriguing in the Philippines, with a vast archive of original photographs and patient records that you can browse. The rooms where doctors worked have been maintained as they were and contain equipment the doctors actually used, much of it looking like instruments of torture.
In 1904 the Americans decided to create an isolated but self-sufficient leper colony here, and the inhabitants were relocated to Concepcion on Busuanga. The US regime rounded up all the lepers they could find in the Philippines and forcibly removed them to Culion. Given the concern about leprosy at the time, this was considered neither cruel nor unusual, simply a way of bringing the sick together in one place so a cure could be found and transmission limited. The colony opened in 1906, receiving around eight hundred lepers in its first year. A 1920s travelogue described Culion as “practically an independent nation” – it even had its own currency. Cost-cutting in the 1930s and World War II meant a dramatic scaling down of the colony; by 1980 there were only 637 patients. A permanent cure for leprosy was discovered in 1987, and the disease was considered eliminated from the island by 2000. Today the old hospital serves as the Culion Sanatorium and General Hospital for the whole island.