The island of NEGROS, fourth largest in the country and home to 3.5 million people, lies at the heart of the Visayas, between Panay to the west and Cebu to the east. Shaped like a boot, it’s split diagonally into the northwestern province of Negros Occidental and the southeastern province of Negros Oriental. The demarcation came when early missionaries decided the thickly jungled central mountain range was too formidable to cross, and is still felt today with each side of the island speaking different languages – Cebuano to the east and Ilonggo to the west.
Today Negros is known as “Sugarlandia”, its rich lowlands growing two-thirds of the nation’s sugar cane and you’ll see evidence of this in the vast silver-green expanse of sugar-cane plantations stretching from the Gulf of Panay across gentle foothills and on to volcanic mountains of the interior. The mountains rise to a giddy 2465m at the peak of Mount Kanlaon, the highest mountain in the Visayas. For the intrepid this means there’s some extreme trekking and climbing on Negros, from Mount Kanlaon itself to Mount Silay in the north. From Bacolod, the capital of Negros Occidental, you can follow the coastal road clockwise to Silay, a beautifully preserved sugar town with grand antique homes and old sugar locomotives. Much of the north coast is given over to the port towns through which sugar is shipped to Manila, but at the southern end of the island around Dumaguete there are good beaches and scuba diving, with a range of excellent budget accommodation. The southwest coast – the heel of the boot – is home to the island’s best beaches, and remains charmingly rural and undeveloped, with carabao in the fields and chocolate-coloured roads winding lazily into the farming barrios of the foothills.
Among Negros’s earliest inhabitants were dark-skinned natives belonging to the Negrito ethnic group – hence the name Negros, imposed by the Spanish when they set foot here in April 1565. After appointing bureaucrats to run the island, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi placed it under the jurisdiction of its first Spanish governor. Religious orders wasted no time in moving in to evangelize the natives, ripe for conversion to the true faith. The latter half of the eighteenth century was a period of rapid economic expansion for Negros, with its sugar industry flourishing and Visayan ports such as Cebu and Iloilo open for the first time to foreign ships. In the last century the rapacious growth of the sugar industry and its increasing politicization were to have disastrous consequences that are still being felt today.