While Cebu teems with well-known island destinations such as Mactan Island, Bantayan, and Malapascua, the Camotes islands rank not too far behind and are set to join the big leagues very soon. Its distinct attractions and unspoilt environs have proven to be quite enchanting to the visitor, especially the first-timer. While accommodations may not be that abundant, selections range from modest to luxurious.
Accessibility and convenience are the prime factors here. One merely has to buy a ticket at the Ocean Jet Terminal situated in Pier One for a thrice daily, 90-minute ferry ride to Poro, Camotes. No three-hour bus rides, no traffic jams at the bridge, no delays for transfers, one simply queues and pays at the ticket counter. Roundtrip fares are quite affordable, costing below PhP800.
This writer was fortunate enough to have been part of the media entourage of the “Suroy-Suroy Sugbo” (Travel, travel Cebu), a collection of five travel packages to five different routes all over Cebu province. Organized by the Provincial Government under Governor Hilario “Junjun” Davide III, this particular
trip was dubbed “Camotes Isles, Summer Interlude” to the towns of Poro, San Francisco, and Tudela. Grace Paulino, provincial tourism officer, and her staff were directly in charge of the entire trip.
Of changes and rituals
This constitutes my fifth trip to Camotes since the late 90s, though the last visit was over a decade ago. I vividly remember during my second visit that four-wheeled vehicles were a rare sight since the roads were quite narrow. Now, even huge Ceres buses such as ours whiz through the roads which now link all four islands. The pier itself is fully concreted and has expanded in size by nearly three-fold.
Needless to say, I was quite amazed at these changes as we disembarked from the fast ferry. More smiles as we boarded a plush Ceres bus headed for Boho Rock Resort where we saw a huge lechon leading a bountiful lunch. No less than Poro Mayor Boy Rama welcomed us along with the Techno Dynamic Dancers with their rendition of the Tagbo Dance, among others.
Next stop was the Santo Nino Church in Poro where many guests underwent the “patunob.” This consists of lay persons passing over the Sto. Nino statue all over the individual to heal certain ailments. Then came the Bukilat Cave in Tudela, the smallest municipality in Cebu with just 11 barangays. The guests had fun interacting with the “supernatural;” witches, fairies, mermaids, and even an “agta” a huge folkloric creature noted for smoking a huge cigar.
Entrance to the cave requires a ritual. An egg determines whether a person can enter or not. If the egg stands still on a plate, the guest/s can enter. If the egg lies down, the guest/s cannot enter due to the wishes of the supernatural. In our case, we were lucky to have entered and witnessed the dark pool, stalactites, and two other natural skylit openings sans steps.
Afternoon snacks were held at the newly-built Tudela Municipal Civic Center. We had our fill of native delicacies, more folk and modern dances, and monologues. A must-try are the yummy cassava cookies which are also available in chocolate, malunggay, and peanut flavors.
Dinner at the sprawling beachfront of the Santiago Bay Garden Resort was a ghostly event. Mainly because the theme was white, probably an offshoot of certain “white ladies” we came in contact with that afternoon. Food was barbecue-related, of which I hardly complained as evidenced by three helpings.
A solo evening stroll later had me encountering a small number of seaside restaurants, shops, and even a Bob Marley curio outlet selling trinkets, bracelets, and the like. It was later learned that Joel Pulvera, owner of the Santiago Bay Garden and Mangodlong Rock Resort, encouraged such businesses to set up shop in order to encourage entrepreneurship and provide more variety of entertainment to visitors. Never mind if these outlets would directly compete with his establishments, that the visitors would have more alternatives was all he cared about.
A visit to Camotes is quite incomplete if one doesn’t visit Lake Danao. Situated in the municipality of San Francisco, the 700-hectare lake (the largest in Cebu) has been named the cleanest in the entire country for several years. When cruising its waters, don’t forget to stop by any of the two islets, said to be the bodies of an estranged couple named Noy Isyong and Nang Isyang. It was a cool experience to land at the islet and gaze at the surrounding calm waters.
Aside from cruising the waters, one can also engage in water sports, massage, horseback riding, and picnic along the grounds. We had another sumptuous lunch with tenderloin, squash, manok Bisaya, and fruits. Lots of dances, games and native snacks followed afterwards, the highlight of which was “palo sebo,” pole climbing for cash.
Dinner had a Hawaiian motif at Mangodlong Rock Resort beachfront with lots of raffles and prizes. I also had the chance to interview the participants to solicit feedback. Alex Ong, 56, was a banker for over three decades in Cebu. He is a first-timer in the Suroy-Suroy and part of a group of nine composed of close relatives and friends.
“This is my first time to visit Camotes. I am impressed with everything, the food, organization,
the efforts undertaken, everything. My mother is from Tudela, so I figured it was about time I visit the place. And we will join the Suroy-suroy again this September,” he beamed.
Malou Yap, 65, a Pru Life financial consultant, was all praises for the trip. As a first-timer in Camotes, she gushed over the entertainment numbers, sights, and especially the medical staff. Moreso with the accommodating and efficient tourism marshals under Grace Paulino who took very good care of the participants. She said she will promote her experiences abroad to friends.
I had to leave early the next morning to attend to personal family matters. I must say that my Camotes experience was quite uplifting. It hardly mattered that Camotes didn’t have fancy infrastructure, instead exuding genuine warmth and smiles for the visitors. Everything was smooth sailing in the calm horizon of Camotes, a must-see interlude for everyone.
Working at topnotch efficiency was Grace Paulino, provincial tourism officer, and her very dependable staff. They were the advance party at all stops; distributed snacks, travel kits, and water to all visitors; politely attended to special requests and questions; and even hired the services of a medical team for emergencies.
By RICHARD RAMOS