Siquijor has a reputation in local lore for being an island of shamans.
To Filipinos and attentive readers of the Lonely Planet guidebook to the Philippines, there is a mystique about Siquijor’s enchanted forests and the folk medicine shamans who practice faith healing, the most known method that of ‘water and stone.’
A person who comes for healing lies down and the shaman passes a glass of water with a stone submerged in it over the body of the ‘patient’ and the water reportedly changes color and reveals where an ailment might be found in the body.
Visiting Siquijor, one does become captive in its spell.
I was unable to leave Sandugan beach for a couple of days, along with a gaggle of young backpackers, a couple and two single travelers. These people and I staying in the same property spent a lot of time reading or writing under the rhythmic rustling of palm leaves and the hypnotic ebb and flow of the tides.
When I could finally tear myself away from the tranquility and peace of Sandugan, I rented a motorbike to see the rest of the island.
Siquijor is an easy 76 kilometer circumference by the national highway, and you can explore it in a couple of days on motorbike. Alternatively, there are small public jeepneys but these run only until around 3.00pm. Tricycles are also available for hire, and they may cost more. The motorbike is the ideal choice for the freedom and flexibility with when and where to stop.
The first sight you might spot as you disembark from the Siquijor port from Dumaguete or Cebu is the Siquijor Church on your right. It is sitting beside the road just outside the wharf exit, and is built from stone and coral rock. This is the area where you can rent a motorbike right away. The motorbike rental guys are across the church and along the entrance to the wharf.
I decided to wait and ask the hotel reception staff to recommend a friend’s rental motorbike, as I like providing income for the kind people I know rather than an unfamiliar person who might view me as simply a source of cash. I prefer to build a rapport, a relationship first, then engage in a business transaction.
Highlights of Siquijor on motorbike
Paliton Beach on the west side of the island is a stretch of sandy gorgeousness with a rocky outcrop on one side and a forest of mangroves marking the other side. The beach attracts a mix of local and foreign tourists. There are a few stalls selling drinks and snacks, but there is nothing else on Paliton but the gorgeous water and the horizon and whatever fun you bring with you.
South of Paliton Beach is the 100-year old Balete Tree, which the land owners have turned into a tourist attraction. The balete tree, or banyan, is massive, and there is a 10 peso fee to enter the attraction. The owners have smartly built a pool under the tree and stocked the pool with ‘massage fish’ which for a fee you can allow to tickle your toes.
San Isidro Convent
I followed the national highway and turned off to Lazi, to see the San Isidro Convent. There is a 50 peso entrance fee, collected to go into funds used for restoration of the historical site.
The convent was built in 1887 by Fray Toribio Sanchez for the purpose of housing sick priests. According to the good Friar, “I want(ed) to build a spacious convent so that sick priests can come and rest here because your town is very restful for the mind and spirit.”
He was, of course, right. To this day, Siquijor is a restful place for the mind and spirit. From the second floor of the convent, the view through the stained glass windows are the very old and very big acacia trees and a balate tree. The high ceilings and the ample space, I imagine, must have been a source of positive vibes for the sick priests who convalesced here.
I met a group of foreigners, one of whom advised the convent’s restoration. Friendly, they invited me to their group photo, one man saying, “You could be my daughter. Or maybe granddaughter.” I thought of my increasing number of gray hairs (stress, not age, I keep telling myself) and replied, “Daughter is perfectly fine.” We took our group shot. One of the women in the group said to me, “This place feels so positive.”
I left right after the photo opp and continued on to the Cambaguhay Falls. The falls are below the highway, a 135-step descent. Just before the steps, there are a few vendors selling cold drinks. There are no stalls selling food or beverages near the waterfalls.
The waterfalls area is crowded now that summer temperatures are more pronounced during the day. The waterfalls have three levels. The first level has two swing ropes and platforms you can use to jump into the cool pool below the falls.
Toting camera and lenses in a backpack I couldn’t leave unattended, I contented myself by soaking my feet, sitting under the shade and enjoying the cool clean water on my toes. After climbing the steps up to the highway, I paid the PHP 10 motorbike parking fee and headed east.
The next destination was Salagdoong Point and beach, a popular place with loads of tourists. Salagdoong Beach belongs to the local government, so at the entrance there is a 30 Pesos environmental fee and an extra 20 Pesos for the motorbike.
The coast is developed, fronted by a large restaurant offering Filipino food and popular with large groups. Along the boardwalk and seawall are huts for rent for the day, all around the perimeter of the property. The rocky outcropping marking one end of the beach has a waterslide. There are glass bottom boats, kayaks, and inflatables for rent if you want to ride to floating huts instead of using the picnic huts on land. Off to the left side of the property are some studio rooms for rent. I had a peek in one that had a double bed and a shower. The rooms were clean and apparently newly constructed, and featured windows facing the water and a narrow porch.
A couple of open air massage huts ended the buildings. No one was getting any massage done. A couple of construction workers were having a siesta in the massage huts. I passed them and kept walking past the worksite.
Far beyond the perimeter of the property, I found a little secret cove where there was no one else. I sat down under the shade of a tree growing from the rock and enjoyed a cold San Miguel pale ale out of the bottle and a bottle of water.
Refreshed after gazing at the turquoise water and listening to the whisper of waves, I realized it was already afternoon and my stomach was ready for lunch.
San Juan and Marco Polo Italian Restaurant
I headed back south toward San Juan, the tourist favorite in Siquijor with the most hotels, resorts and guesthouses. San Juan is popular because from there you can book a day of diving.
San Juan is also the location of Italian-owned Marco Polo restaurant, where I intended to eat slowly, have a slow espresso afterwards and wait for the sunset.
The Marco Polo menu offers more than a dozen pasta dishes and about 20 pizza types. Craving some prosciutto, I chose the pepperoni because it was spicy and because it also featured black olives (I have missed them on the islands). The thin crust pizza hit the spot. Crisp crust, sauce that is tomato paste instead of sweet ketchup, and generous with the meat and olives.
Spying on other travelers’ meals, I observed the pasta dishes were a good sized portion and there are a few vegetarian options from both pizza and pasta menus. Mango shakes are popular as are banana shakes. I had the calamansi juice, unsweetened. Just the right acidity to complement the rich pizza.
After the meal I ordered the espresso. It was tiny but the aroma of that Italian coffee was huge on pleasure.
A couple of hours later, I emerged from the relaxed atmosphere of the Marco Polo and headed west to return to Paliton Beach for the sunset.
Sunset on Paliton Beach, west side of Siquijor
More people lounged on the sand at the beach than there had been in the morning. Most of the people on the beach were visitors except for 4-5 local tourists. Everyone was mellow, sipping cold San Miguel from sarongs on the sand, or sitting in the water.
When the sun was just about to set, a lot of us rose from our various mermaid impersonations to point at the gorgeous light with our cameras and cell phones. It was like a concert, with everyone standing and taking photos.
For a moment, I felt connected to these strangers, synchronized with them in the awesome beauty of another Siquijor sunset.
On the drive back to Sandugan, I was thinking about how few people visit Siquijor. Most of them have heard of this island only for its diving and a lot of the travelers here are here for the underwater sightseeing.
Those of us who are here above water seem quite happy as well. Watching a family from France having a waterfight on the beach in front of the Marco Polo was priceless. (If I had a kid, I would give them the pleasure of waterfights in a beautiful environment and that feeling of running in bare feet on clean sand. More than urban days where play can often mean electronically assisted and virtual rather than first hand experiential. Just sayin’.)
Day after day I am enthralled by the space of its beautiful beaches. More than once I have thought about how it must be like to live here, wake up to soothing rhythms of the sea, sleep to its music.
The spell that Siquijor casts on the traveler is a simple magic.
It will be difficult to leave.