Bantayan Island

The Historic Bantayan Church

The best thing about Cebu is that you will never run out of places to go and things to experience. Its such a great place to live in . While I was there I worked during the weekdays and spent my weekends going around. If things work out for me I’ll probably retire there someday there’s so much to discover in this southern island for a history buff like me.

One such place that I got to visit last year is the northern island of Bantayan. From Cebu City, its about 3-4 hours. The bus ride is long but its all worth it as it offers travelers a look at the scenic northern towns of Cebu that not too many people get to see – its vast sugarfields, its magnificent coast and its communities and the old churches along the coastlines. The cheap bus ride (50 pesos for a 150-200 km of traveling!) terminates in Hagnaya port. In Hagnaya you have to ride a ship, one of those roro types (fare is around 150 bucks), to Sta. Fe Bantayan.

I usually don’t plan where to stay, which sounds dumb but I prefer to always look and shop around first. This doesn’t work all the time but I’ve been very fortunate so far. I did found a place in Bantayan, a hut actually, that’s pretty cool – un-airconditioned but less that a 100 meters from the beach so I was sure I would get a lot of fresh sea breeze. There’s no sense in getting expensive lodging since I really don’t spend a lot of time staying inside – most of the time I’m out the whole day only coming back to rest.

The island is a place of interest because it played a historical role in preventing the Moro’s to continue pillaging the Christian population in the northern portion of that province. It was Gobernador Corcuera who built most of the fortifications and watchtowers in the island. Known as “Bantayan sa Hari”, literally meaning watchtowers of the king, the island later became simply known as “Bantayan”. The significance of its development as a defense island  is that it gives us an idea of what people were like at that time. On  the one side, you have the invading Moros who rode the habagat to reach Cebu from the deep south – then you have natives who had converted to Catholicism, now fighting alongside the Spaniards. Its interesting that from these encounters the island had been given a unique role – the battles had left it with so many wonderful historical monuments and a strong Catholic tradition.

Receding tides forms an interesting landscape

I could just imagine what the Spaniards felt when they found out that they had to battle Muslims, their old adversaries, again in what they thought were fresh lands for their kingdom.  Most historical opinion are that the Moro’s visits were cases of piratical plunder, sacking coastal towns, capturing potential slaves as they leave. There are some scholars that suggest that the attacks were resistance against the Spanish presence, which in my view is highly unlikely. Whether the intention was to inflict injury or fight the invaders what is certain was that these were not the first battle between these nations as it seem more likely that the Moro’s had been slave raiding even before the Spaniards came. This is the reason why promised Spanish “protection” from these pirates appealed to the natives who were naturally awed by the Foreigners advanced weaponry and building techniques. Its fascinating that all the Spanish projects: like churches, bridges and administrative buildings were built to “impress and intimidate” the native people. That’s why we have to save what’s left because they don’t make them like they used to.

The Bantayan church is dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul. It was founded sometime in 1580’s at that time it was part of the Archdiocese of Mexico (the one in the Americas not Pampangas). The missions built several churches in the same site due because of natural disasters and battles. The current church is said to be the fifth to be erected in the same site.  The island being subjected to countless battles with invading groups should explain why the walls are  possibly the thickest ever built in the province, seriously someone should measure them! Just looking at them and imagining the labor that went to making them gave me goosebumps.

“The interior of Bantayan church is worth highlighting. It is decorated with stone statuary just like the facade. Stone carvings of saints from the colonial period are not as common as wood carving. These stone statues make Bantayan’s interior valuable”, said the Jesuit historian Fr. Javellana.The bas reliefs are very intricate, it can be found inside and outside of the church. I’ve never seen anything like it and I suggest to those who visit the church to take a close look.

An old fashioned Filipino home blending well with its fast modernizing town

The house on the right belongs to the old Bantayanon family, the Escario's. Around the plaza are some very good examples of Hispanic inspired Filipino houses

There are two significant fort ruins in the islands, one is in Sta. Fe the other is in Madridejos. Its amazing how this isolated island was made into a military installation. Its also interesting that there are still quite a few old houses around the church and plaza. The old building where they show films are still around. Some houses are in their final stages of being discarded while most, surprisingly, are well kept. There are at least 20 which is high considering that old houses has been harder to maintain due to its cost and the unavailability of materials. The families that decided to keep their houses must be commended – these people are rare nowadays. One thing that I love the most about bahay na bato in the provinces is that the original builders never resorted to what was cheap (hindi tinipid ang materyales) which is probably the reason why their still around after all these years. These romantic houses, if your a history person, are worth seeing when you’re around the poblacion.

After a tiring day I then went on to forage for food – well, there’s no need really since at night time as there are lots of those buffet eat-all-you-can restos in Sta. Fe. I picked this one ran by a Portuguese fella who personally serves his customers with his son. His place is decorated by these shirts and jerseys (I assume donated by his customers). The food was great and price was cheap – not bad considering you can literally eat until you pass out (I think someone did or was he just drunk?). The grilled seafoods and all those Filipino dishes was overflowing. I think the Portuguese also serves some of his hometown cuisines but I was too busy eating to even notice. I also bought some dangit and pusit – its cheaper here compared to the popular dried fish market of Tabuan.

At night time the lights of the Negrense town of Escalante is visible from Santa Fe. The night time is good time to many people here especially the foreigners who go out and drink in the streets bars around the poblacion – some of these folks had decided to stay for good in Bantayan. I can’t blame them, its a great place. How I wish that I had more time when I visited. I retired for the night and woke up to a beautiful Bantayan sun rise – it was just an amazing feeling seeing it, a picture that would stay with you forever.

A scene that stays with you for a long time

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2 responses to “Bantayan Island

  • John

    My guess is you wrote it about 20 years ago. The Escario houses are now decrepit ruins, and the bus fare to Hagnaya is now 150 pesos (and the ferry nearly 300).

    By the way, the church is made of coral, but only faced with – inside the walls are filled with rubble

  • slow

    Thanks for that, very fascinating on the subject. I will perform some more googleing for Bantayan Island With one's past…

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