The east Visayan island of Leyte (“LAY-tay”), separated from Samar to the north by a mere slither of ocean, the San Juanico Strait, is another sizeable chunk of the Philippines that has a great deal to offer visitors but is often overlooked. You could spend months on this island and still only scratch the surface: the coastline is immense, the interior rugged and there are lakes and mountains that are well off the tourist map, known only to farmers who have tilled their shores and foothills for generations.
In the sixteenth century, Magellan passed through Leyte on his way to Cebu, making a blood compact with the local chieftain as he did so. But to many Filipinos and war historians, Leyte will always be associated with World War II, when its jungled hinterlands became the base for a formidable force of guerrillas who fought a number of bloody encounters with the Japanese. It was because of this loyalty among the inhabitants that General Douglas MacArthur landed at Leyte on October 20, 1944, fulfilling the famous promise he had made to Filipinos, “I shall return.”
Around the provincial capital of Tacloban, the usual arrival point, there are a number of sights associated with the war, notably the Leyte Landing Memorial, marking the spot where MacArthur waded ashore to liberate the archipelago. To the north of Tacloban is the beautiful island of Biliran and, a short bangka ride away from Biliran, the islands of Maripipi and Higatangan, which both have terrific beaches, rock formations and caves. To the south of Ormoc the coastal road takes you through Baybay and Maasin, both ferry ports, before reaching Padre Burgos, renowned for its scuba diving. Off the southern tip of Leyte is Limasawa Island, an isolated outcrop where some believe Magellan conducted the first Catholic Mass in the Philippines.