The first thing you notice as you gaze down from your window seat is the color green. It’s everywhere, a great departure from the tightly bunched rusting roofs that greet you when you arrive in Manila. The plane touches down at speed then brakes with some urgency. The airstrip is short, and overshooting it will dump you in the sea.
With that distressing episode out of the way, welcome to Dumaguete. Rather, welcome to Sibulan Airport—a small, non-descript gateway for planes bearing spartan travelers. This is not your typical tourist trap; you either go here to get schooled or to write better. Welcome to “the city of gentle people,” an odd moniker until you realize the locals here indeed look so relaxed and unperturbed. There’s something to be learned here, all right.
Known as a university town owing to the number of excellent institutions offering college education here. Foremost among the universities is Silliman University, named after Dr. Horace Silliman, an American who coughed up US$10,000 in 1899 for its creation by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. Silliman University’s website narrates: “It was told that the friendly attitude of the people and the caliber of the local officials attracted him to Dumaguete, a ‘place of health and beauty.’” Silliman was thus established in 1901, and became a university in 1938. It holds the honor of being the country’s first Protestant university and first American private university in the continent.
There’s a preponderance of motorcycles. Only a few riders wear helmets though—and fewer still wear clothing appropriate for puttering about town on two wheels. Paging local officials.
Our delegation of motoring media practitioners is in town to experience Isuzu’s prized pickup, the D-Max. It also gives us an opportunity to take in the sights on board the diesel-powered workhorse.
After a delicious lunch of fresh-cooked seafood and other tasty Pinoy treats at the Hayahay Treehouse Bar and Viewdeck on Flores Avenue, Piapi, we hit road again and push through the streets—mostly in pristine condition presumably because of a lack of four-wheeled vehicles. People do a double-take at our motorcade of pickups, and gamely wave and smile when we greet them.
Surprisingly, there’s a bit of traffic as we stumble upon a fiesta along one of the back roads. Tables and chairs are set outside homes to welcome the inevitable influx of guests.
We pass the aforementioned Silliman University campus, then the historic Dumaguete belfry on Perdices Street. Erected in 1811, the old tower is the reportedly the earliest of its kind in the province. It was originally used to spot marauding Muslims, but its probably hosting bats now.
Within a protected park lie the picturesque twin lakes of Balinsasayao. They don’t yield their beauty readily. You negotiate a zigzagging road that alternates between gravel and pavement interspersed with some off-roading action on big rocks. The reward begins when you get high enough that the mercury dips a couple of digits, and careless motorists risk certain death should they fall off the edge of the aforementioned path.
It has been raining recently, so areas of the road are slick. Thankfully, we encounter but a few vehicles (mainly motorcycles, of course) going the opposite direction. No IRT (ice road truckers) action for now.
Finally, we reach the crater lake or, rather, a smaller lake. Balinsasayao is accessed after a short but steep downhill hike, which we make with knees screaming for relief.
Still, the picturesque location is worth it, don’t you think?
We do not have enough time to visit the other lake, Danao, which is reached by paddleboat. Once more, we put our lower appendages to work and hike to where we came from.
Someone says we missed the yacht from the Dumaguete Port to our Siquijor accommodations, the Coco Beach Resort. So, it’s the slow boat for us—a RORO (roll-on, roll-off) ferry that also bears our four-wheeled transportation.
The Mindanao (also called the Bohol) Sea is agitated today, but the big craft heads out confidently as the sun signs out in the horizon. We reach the Siquijor port more than an hour later. From there, it’s a short drive to Coco Beach Resort—arguably the best Siquijor has to offer.
Even as it makes a case for exactly that (clean and well-maintained rooms, ideal location, perfect service) we scramble desperately to find any kind of signal for our phones. I am told that I can score a bar or two by the seaside, so I make my way to the fine white sand with black waves crashing at the beach. A couple of bars show up—enough for a decent call. I look up and become riveted to large pinpricks of stars in the sky. You can breathe in the fresh air while indulging in the pointlessness of trying to count them all.
Next day, we scramble into a motorized banca to reach the resort’s yacht anchored in deeper water. We are off to Apo Island, a volcanic patch of earth only 12 hectares large. A protect marine sanctuary, the island reportedly hosts breeding turtles, and is a favorite dive and snorkeling spot for tourists. The otherwise pristine water was sadly agitated when we arrived, so there wasn’t much sealife to be found—turtle or otherwise.
While some take to the water, the rest of us landlubbers have a few bottles of beer opened and contemplate the beauty of this piece of heaven while sipping the brew. After lunch, we board the boat and ride the restless sea back to Siquijor.
We barely have time to shake off our sea legs quickly before again hitting the road make a literal round of the island. If so inclined, you can indeed drive off and return to your starting point some 70 kilometers later.
On this drive, we visit the Lazi church and convent—constructed in 1884 and 1891, respectively. The convent is believed to be the biggest in Asia. This historic Catholic church (conferred historical landmark status in 1978) is in dire need of restoration work though, particularly its ceiling.
Despite (or perhaps because) of a reputation for mystical tales and creatures, the small island of Siquijor has us enthralled with its peaceful, unburdened charm. It might take a little more time and effort to get there, but it’s well worth it.