The Visayas, a collection of islands large and small in the central Philippines, are considered to be the cradle of the country. It was here that Ferdinand Magellan laid a sovereign hand on the archipelago for Spain and began the process of colonization and Catholicization that shaped so much of the nation’s history. The islands were also the scene of some of the bloodiest battles fought against the Japanese during World War II, and where General Douglas MacArthur waded ashore to liberate the country after his famous promise, “I shall return”.
There are thousands of islands in the Visayas and everywhere you turn there seems to be another patch of tropical sand or coral reef awaiting your attention, usually with a ferry or bangka to take you there. There are nine major island groups – Cebu, Bohol, Siquijor, Negros, Guimaras, Panay, Romblon, Samar, and Leyte – but it’s the hundreds in between that make this part of the archipelago so irresistible. Of the smaller islands, some are famous for their beach life (especially Boracay, off the northern tip of Panay), some for their fiestas, and some for their folklore.
No one can accuse the Visayas, and the Visayans who live here, of being a uniform lot. Visayan is the umbrella language, the most widely spoken form of which is Cebuano, but in some areas they speak Ilongo or Waray Waray, in others Aklan; all three languages are closely related Malayo-Polynesian tongues. The diversity of languages is a symptom of the region’s fractured topography, with many islands culturally and economically isolated from those around them, part of the Philippine archipelago in little more than name.
Getting around the Visayas is fairly easy, with increasingly efficient transport links. Cebu, Bohol, Negros, Panay, Romblon, Leyte and Samar are all accessible by air, most with daily flights from Manila and, in some cases, Cebu City. Major ferry companies still also ply some routes between Manila and the Visayas, although with increasingly low airfares, these services are dwindling. Within the Visayas, the ferry network is so extensive it doesn’t really matter if you can’t get a flight. Ferries large and small, safe and patently unsafe, link almost every city and town in the Visayas with neighbouring islands, so it’s unlikely you’ll ever be stuck for long. But the beauty of the region is that there’s no need to make formal plans. There’s always another island, another beach, another place to stay.