Bantayan was named as such because of the many watchtowers erected by the Spaniards on the island during the 15th century. These served as formidable lookouts for Moro invaders. Remnants of these towers are still present to this day.
Today, it is known for at least two things: dried danggit (rabbitfish) and the unusual observance of the Lenten Season. During the Holy Week, when the entire Roman Catholic world is abstaining from meat, people in Bantayan eat lechons (roasted pigs) without any tinge of guilt. This was allowed because of a papal dispensation issued by Pope Leo XII in 1843, provided of course that the ‘parishioners perform acts of penance and charity works.’
But most would probably remember the island for its white sand beaches, the abundance and the quality of which would make all the luxurious resorts along Mactan blush in envy. An example of which is Sugar Beach, aptly named for the almost saccharine texture of its sand. It is also a popular backpacking destination especially for those who want an extremely affordable weekend escape from the metropolis.
From Sugar Beach, one could also rent a bangka (motorized outrigger boats) to embark on a quick trip to Virgin Island. It is a beautiful, private and largely unspoilt island teeming with marine life. A caretaker charges an entrance fee for the upkeep of the place.
However, there’s more to Bantayan than dried fish, lechon and sand. It also has a mangrove forest, a very old church, some fortresses, a walkway extending to the sea and an unnamed sea inlet. May I present to you Bantayan then like you’ve never seen it before.
The mangrove forests at OMAGIECA or the Obo-ob Mangrove Garden Integrated Ecotourism and Conservation Association is a community-based eco-tourism initiative. It is located in between Sta. Fe and the Bantayan town proper. This was referred to us by Mr. Paul Holaysan whom we met while roaming around the town plaza.
At OMAGIECA, we went through elevated bamboo walkways that weave through the dense mangrove forest. We also planted a few seedlings at the end of the tour.
The Bantayan church, also known as Sts Peter and Paul Parish, is the oldest parish in Cebu. It was built by the Agustinians in 1580. This also served as shelter for the people during Moro raids. In front of the church is the town plaza. The market where the danggit and other dried seafoods are sold is just within walking distance as well.
At the northernmost point of the island is Kota Park which used to be a public cemetery up until the 1950s. It is now transformed into a beach park which has a resort and the Madridejos Fort Ruins. Like most old Spanish churches, this fortress is mostly made from coral stones as well.
One must not also miss the Bontay Baywalk near the park. The 187 meters footbridge was said to be constructed in just 40 days and 40 nights. At the end of this concrete walkway is a three-story observation deck which offers an unobstructed view of the Madridejos shore and the Visayas Sea.
An Unnamed Sea Inlet
When most would stop at Kota Park, we chose to go back to our starting point by taking the relatively unknown eastern portion of the island. The narrow roads at this area would lead you through fishing villages, a family selling really delicious torta and some portions where there are still tall trees.
There is also sea inlet located just a few barangays before Santa Fe. The water was deep and calm. There were only very few people that time. My friends were tempted to take a quick dip but since it was already nearing nightfall, we continued our journey back to our resort.
I’ve been to Bantayan three times already but I am still surprised every time. The first was a frenzied and jam-packed day trip (yes, it can actually be done) and the remaining two involved overnight stays at different resorts. What’s especially memorable in the recent trips was that we toured around the island by renting motorbikes (Php300-400 exclusive of fuel), without the aid of maps as well. We just asked for directions from the very warm and friendly locals.
So the next time you go to Bantayan, don’t just stay at the beach. Go around the island when you can. Prepare to be surprised because there is certainly more to be discovered and rediscovered beyond what you may have already known about the island.
How to get there
From Cebu City, one can reach the island by taking a bus (3 hours) at North Bus Terminal. I would recommend taking the earliest bus out (around 4:00 AM) so that you can catch the first ferry for Sta. Fe Port (7:00 AM) at the Hagnaya Port.
This headstart would give you ample time to find a resort that suits your preference, walk around the town or just chill out by the beach. Aside from renting motorbikes, one could get around the town by trisikads (bikes with improvised passenger carriages).