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.
Separated from the Panay mainland by the narrowest slither of ocean, the small island of GUIMARAS is best known for producing the tastiest mangoes in the Philippines. Yet for all its provincial simplicity Guimaras is much more than a day-trip destination. There are some good, affordable resorts, exceptional beaches – especially around Nueva Valencia on the southwest coast – and a few enticing islands offshore. The undulating interior and its numerous trails have also made the island a popular destination for mountain bikers. There’s also a smattering of history, with defiant old Spanish churches and the country’s only Trappist monastery. During the Filipino–American War, General Douglas MacArthur, then a first lieutenant, built the wharf at Buenavista, which is still being used today by ferries.
Guimaras was badly affected by an oil spill from the the tanker, Solar 1, which sank off the northern coast of the island in August 2006. Although today there is little evidence of the spill to the casual observer, and beaches look back to their pristine best, it will take decades for the island’s mangrove ecosystems (and fish stocks) to fully recover.
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.
Tiny, volcanic Apo Island, 7km off the south coast of Negros, has become a prime destination for divers, most of whom head out for the day from Dumaguete, Dauin or Siquijor. Site of one of the Philippines’ first and most successful marine reserves, Apo has a series of reefs teeming with marine life, from the smallest nudibranch to the largest deepwater fish. Snorkelling in the sanctuary costs P150 per person, while diving costs P300. The sanctuary area is on the island’s southeast coast, while much of the flat land to the north is occupied by the only village, home to four hundred fisherfolk and farmers. Non-divers needn’t be bored; Apo has some fantastic snorkelling and it’s a great little island to explore on foot.
Most tourists visiting Apo take an organized trip from Dumaguete or Bais, though you can travel independently on one of the regular bangkas from Silliman Beach in Dumaguete and from Malatapay. The trip takes about 45 minutes and the price should be P1500 for 5–6 people. There are only two places to stay on the island: Liberty’s Resort (P1000–1499) has a dive shop, dorms and rooms with private or shared bathrooms overlooking the ocean, while Apo Island Beach Resort (t035/225-5490, wwww.apoislandresort.com; P2000–2499) has lovely cottage rooms right on the beach, plus dorm beds (P700) and diving (P1300–1400 per dive).
Among other dive sites, Calong-Calong Point off the southern tip of Negros is known for its dazzling number of smaller reef fish. Nearby is Tacot, a tricky deep dive where sharks are common. From the coastal towns to the south of Dumaguete you can take a bangka to Siquijor, where sites such as Sandugan Point and San Juan go as deep as 65m, and where you can expect to see tuna, barracuda and sharks plus, from March to August, manta rays. You can arrange trips to these sites through the dive operators in Dauin or Dumaguete.
At 2435m Mount Kanlaon, two hours south from Bacolod by jeepney, is the tallest peak in the central Philippines and offers a potentially dangerous challenge. One of the thirteen most active volcanoes in the country, there’s the real possibility of violent eruptions and climbers have died scaling it. The rim of the crater is a forbidding knife-edge overhanging an apparently bottomless chasm. The dense surrounding forest contains all manner of wonderful fauna, including pythons and tube-nosed bats and locals believe the mountain is home to many spirits. It also features in Philippine history being where President Manuel Quezon hid from invading Japanese forces during World War II.
There are three main routes up the volcano itself. The Guintubdan trail is the easiest and most comon ascent, but even this should not be underestimated. The usual start point is Guintubdan, where there is basic accommodation at The Pavilion (P499 and under) and Rafael Salas Nature Camp (P499 and under). From here, although it’s only 8km to the top, the trail is best broken with an overnight stop. The 14km-long Mananawin trail works best over three days and offers the chance to really get to know the region, while the short, steep Wesey trail is very exposed and only for experienced tropical mountaineers.
Whichever way you choose to ascend, a permit (P300) and guide (P500/day) are mandatory, and a porter (P300–500) might come in handy. The easiest way to make all of these arrangments is through Billy Torres at Next Stop Negros Tours. Contact Billy as far in advance as possible (ideally a month), and he can arrange everything from permits, guides and porters to tents and meals (climbs around P4500/person excluding transport). Coming from further afield you can also arrange to climb Kanlaon through Dumaguete Outdoors in Dumaguete.
The substantial, vaguely triangular island of Panay has been largely bypassed by tourism, perhaps because everyone seems to get sucked towards Boracay off its northern tip instead. There’s room enough on Panay, though, for plenty of discovery and adventure: the island has a huge coastline and a mountainous, jungled interior that has yet to be fully mapped.
Panay comprises four provinces, Antique (“ant-ee-kay”) on the west coast, Aklan in the north, Capiz in the northeast and Iloilo (“ee-lo-ee-lo”) running along the east coast to the capital of province, Iloilo City in the south. The province that interests most tourists is Aklan, whose capital Kalibo is the site of the big and brash Ati-Atihan festival, held in the second week of January. This doesn’t mean you should give the rest of Panay the brushoff. The northeast coast from Concepcion to Batad offers bangka access to a number of unspoilt islands while on the west side you’ll find Antique, a raw, bucolic province of picturesque beaches and scrubby mountains.
Ati-Atihan is a quasi-religious mardi gras held every January in Kalibo. The culmination of the two-week event is a procession through the streets on the third Sunday of January, a sustained three-day, three-night frenzy of carousing and dancing. Transvestites bring out their best frocks and schoolgirls with hats made of coconuts join aborigines, celebrities and priests in a fancy-dress. Throw in the unending beat of massed drums and the average Filipino’s predisposition for a good party, and the result is a flamboyant alfresco rave that claims to be the biggest and most prolonged in the country. The Ati-Atihan mantra Hala Bira, Puera Pasma translates as “Keep on going, no tiring.”
The festival’s origins can be traced to 1210, when refugees from Borneo fled north to Panay. Panay’s Negrito natives, known as Atis, sold them land and both parties celebrated the deal with a feast, which was then repeated year on year. The fancy-dress element derives from the lighter-skinned Borneans blacking up their faces in affectionate imitation of the Atis. Later, Spanish friars co-opted the festival in honour of the Santo Niño, spreading the word among islanders that the baby Jesus had appeared to help drive off a pirate attack. It was a move calculated to hasten the propagation of Catholicism throughout the Philippines, and it worked. Ati-Atihan has since become so popular that similar festivals have cropped up all over the Visayas. Historians generally agree, however, that the Kalibo Ati-Atihan is the real thing.
Off the northern coast of Panay, between Mindoro and Bicol, the province of Romblon consists of three main islands – Tablas, Romblon and Sibuyan, and a dozen or so more smaller islands. The province is largely overlooked by visitors because it’s difficult to reach, and once you’re here, to put it simply, there’s not that much to do. There are few resorts and the most sophisticated Romblon’s nightlife gets is the occasional wooden shack with a karaoke machine. There are, however, some beautiful and rarely visited beaches and coral reefs, making it an excellent off-the-beaten-track destination for scuba diving, snorkelling or just exploring and getting a sense of provincial life in the archipelago.
Romblon Town itself is a pretty place, with Spanish forts, a cathedral built in 1726 and breathtaking views across the Romblon Strait from Sabang lighthouse. On Sibuyan you can explore Mount Guiting Guiting Natural Park and climb the mountain itself, an extinct volcano. To the south of Tablas Island is beautiful little Carabao Island (usually visited via Boracay) where there’s some terrific diving.
Dominated by the ragged saw-like bulk of Mount Guiting Guiting, verdant Sibuyan Island in the easternmost of the Romblon group has everything an adventure traveller could dream of: a sparkling coastline, a thickly forested interior and a couple of daunting mountain peaks. Dubbed “The Galapagos of Asia”, Sibuyan boasts an extraordinarily rich range of wildife including 700 plant species and 131 species of bird. Five mammal species (one fruit bat and four rodents) are unique to the island. Much of the Sibuyan was declared a nature reserve in 1996. However, this has not prevented the island from being targeted as a potential mineral mining site, and much to the dismay of environmentalists and local communities, a Canadian mining company was granted exploratory mining rights in 2009.
Sibuyan’s 47,000 residents, mostly subsistence farmers and hunters who rely on the forest and the ocean to supplement their meagre incomes, rarely see tourists but know every cove, trail and cave on the island and are happy to act as guides. Most of them live in three towns, San Fernando, Cajidiocan and Magdiwang.
The island of Samar, between Bicol and Leyte and 320km from top to toe, has yet to take off as a major tourist destination, which is both a shame and a blessing as large parts of the island remain unspoilt, wild and beautiful. One reason not to miss it is the marvellous Sohoton Natural Bridge National Park, a prehistoric wilderness in Western Samar province, full of caves, waterfalls and underground rivers, while further north around the towns of Calbayog and Catbalogan lie some of Southeast Asia’s biggest cave systems. There are also dozens of relatively untouched islands off the north coast. In Eastern Samar, Borongan, and further south, Guiuan and the beautiful island of Calicoan are deservedly popular stops on the surfing circuit. On a historical note, Homonhon Island in Eastern Samar is where Ferdinand Magellan is reputed to have set foot for the first time on Philippine soil in 1521.
Samar has a different climate from the rest of the country, with a dry period in May and June only. Apart from that, rainfall is possible throughout the year. Most of the rain falls from the beginning of November until February when there can also be fierce typhoons. The best time to visit is from May to September, although the growing number of surfers who come here to take advantage of the swells that rip in from the Pacific might argue that the typhoon season is best.
Small, laidback Siquijor lies between the Cebu, Negros and Bohol islands and makes a worthwhile stop on a southern itinerary. Very little is known about the island and its inhabitants before the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century who named it the Isla del Fuego (“Island of Fire”) because of the eerie luminescence generated by swarms of fireflies. This sense of mystery still persists today, with many Filipinos believing Siquijor to be a centre of witchcraft. Shamans aside, Siquijor is peaceful, picturesque and a pleasure to tour, whether by bike, tricycle, motorbike or jeepney. The beaches alone make it worth a visit, but there are also mountain trails, waterfalls and old churches to explore as well as decent scuba diving.
Most places to stay are within half an hour of the port towns of Siquijor and Larena, notably around San Juan, south of Siquijor, and at Sandugan, north of Larena. A number of resorts have certified dive operators who will take you on trips to places such as Sandugan Point and Tambisan Point, both known for their coral and abundant marine life. At Paliton Beach there are three submarine caves where you can see sleeping reef sharks and at Salag-Doong Beach on the eastern side of the island divers have occasionally reported seeing manta rays and shoals of barracuda. Further afield but still within easy reach, Apo Island is another dive favourite, and is worth a visit even if you stay above water.
Every Good Friday herbalists from around Siquijor and from the rest of the Visayas and Mindanao gather in San Antonio, in Siquijor’s pea-green hinterlands, to prepare potions made from tree bark, roots, herbs and insects. The culmination of this annual Conference of Sorcerers and Healers – now rebranded the Folk Healing Festival because it sounds less menacing – is the mixing of a mother-of-all potions in a large cauldron. As the mixture is stirred, participants gather in a circle and mumble incantations said to imbue it with extraordinary healing powers (the ceremony takes place on Good Friday in the belief that on Christ’s day of death, supernatural forces are free to wander the earth). It’s evidently a strong brew, with wide-ranging powers that include provoking a good harvest, securing a spouse or getting rid of that troublesome zit.